A festive opening ceremony of the US Embassy in Jerusalem was held on Monday, 14 May 2018. The transfer of the embassy from Tel Aviv is an intermediate result of the process US President Donald Trump started in December 2017. At the time, he announced that Washington recognised Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and gave orders to begin moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem (the law regarding the transfer had been agreed upon by Congress back in 1995).
Active discussions within public, political, diplomatic, and expert circles regarding the peculiar event are in fact based on three basic questions: Firstly, is this decision in conflict with international law or is it in compliance with the norms? Secondly, how accurate are the warnings and threats, popular among certain groups, which tell us that this action might cause a new wave of Arab violence and terror, flooding the Jerusalem, Israel, and the region in general? And finally, whether one can say that Trump’s escapade, in the opinion of his opponents, tends to destroy the last opportunity to ‘unfreeze’ the long and slow Palestine-Israel political (formerly ‘peace’) process?
While the answer to the second question seems to be ‘no’, when following recent events, and also due to the failure of radical Islamists to ‘disbalance’ the Arab street, the other two questions need more thorough consideration. As for whether moving the embassy to Jerusalem is an unprecedented violation of international norms, it was Donald Trump who set the tone. In a dramatic statement he declared that acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital of Israel does not mean that the US administration has made a final conclusion regarding the borders of the city, which according to a representative from the administration should be defined through direct negotiations between the parties of the conflict. And in his welcome speech, broadcast during the opening ceremony of the US Embassy in the Jerusalem Arnona area, Trump promised that the US will do its best to keep the status quo in Jerusalem.
At first glance, such a statement backs the position of Trump’s critics, as they say that the Trump’s position has in fact changed the status of Jerusalem and brought into question whether continuing the diplomatic process is even possible now. People who are against this approach suggest to pay attention to certain events that prove the gradual erosion of the status quo in Jerusalem has been happening for quite a while – and that it was not at all in favor of Israel. This started back in 1980 when, in response to the Knesset’s ‘Basic Law about Jerusalem’, UN Security Council Resolution #478 was taken. The resolution was the first to doubt the right of Israel not only to exist in East Jerusalem but also to be in the city at all. As a result, the resolution called for the states which had established diplomatic missions in West Jerusalem to remove them – and that was done by and by. The resolution had no other impact: a ‘unified and undivided’ Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a fact, though it was not recognised by the majority of international players. Even leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) understood the real situation. When they agreed to sign the Oslo Accords with Israel they in fact excluded East Jerusalem from the process a priori. Even Yasser Arafat could understand that due to the current consensus in Israeli society it would be possible to demand its separation only if the real goal was to ‘destroy’ the negotiating process. And that’s what Arafat did in September 2000.
In fact, Barack Obama used to ‘turn those understandings upside down’ when he, being strongly opposed to the positions of his predecessors, referred to the Jewish districts of East and North Jerusalem as a group of “settlements on occupied Palestinian territories”. People in Ramallah took this as carte blanche to not just continue, but increase the imposition of ‘preliminary terms’ to return to negotiations, including consent from Israeli authorities for the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, and its capital in East Jerusalem. These terms were obviously unacceptable to Israel, and some argue that it served as an excuse for the PLO to escape negotiations.
According to Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, eminent expert in international law, the previous refusal of the US to acknowledge Jerusalem – the holy center for three major religions – as the capital of Israel was based on a reluctance to change the status quo in the city. But in reality, that is happening anyway. This includes the fact that Israel’s presence in the historical places sacred to Jews was declared to be a ‘blatant violation of international law’ which, according to Dershowitz, was in fact some kind of distortion.
Arguments from supporters of this point of view are based on four points. Firstly, over the course of 67 years there has been a real consensus regarding West Jerusalem as the recognised capital of Israel. In fact, it was the very place where most embassies had been located until the UN Security Council Resolution #478 was taken in 1980. And relocating embassies from the western part of the city was purely political. There were no serious legal obstacles for any of the countries that had fully fledged diplomatic relations with Israel to have their representative offices in Jerusalem. Secondly, resolutions of different UN divisions that point to settlement activities of Israel on the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, are presented as a recommendation and have no legal effect.
The third argument is a historical one: it is a ‘common misconception’ when supporters of Israel’s separation ‘along the green line’ insist that the current complicated international and legal collision was caused by Israel taking the eastern part of the city during the Six-Day War. In reality, it was the Arabs causing the problem as they refused to accept the UN decision about dividing western Palestine, along with Jerusalem and Bethlehem being identified as a self-efficient unit under external international supervision. But the decision was not implemented due to the refusal of the Arabs; Jordan’s annexation of East Jerusalem has never been recognised by the international community.
Therefore, the demand to restore the status quo by means of returning the actual borders to those of 4 June 1967, has no legal, political, or moral sense. And even less, to return to the Corpus Separatum status, which has never been the case in Jerusalem (that was what the UN took for granted in 1951). Finally, there is the international norm of a ‘natural historic right’ of people for political self-identification on their land. Following that norm, the idea to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state of Israel is simply a fact and it is useless to deny it.
If all of this is true, restoration of the status quo in Jerusalem means returning to how things were in 1980. This means that West Jerusalem, immediately and officially becomes the internationally recognised capital of the Jewish state, and countries that keep normal relations with Israel should transfer their diplomatic missions there. Additionally, the areas that had been controlled by Jordan prior to the Six-Day War, should not be considered as the occupied Palestinian territories where Israel conducts illegal settlement activities, but rather recognised as ‘territories in dispute’.
As for the Palestine-Israel negotiation track, the tough reaction of leaders in the Palestinian administration – who had stipulated a return to normal dialogue with Jerusalem – to the US escapade with a number of preliminary conditions, is most probably caused by the feeling that they are gradually losing the possibility of being the key player in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. And so far they are doing their best not to provide Brussels, Moscow, and Arab regimes with the opportunity to escape the ‘Palestinian trap’ – when, at first glance, the negotiation process can really become pointless. But the opposite situation is possible as well. The ‘Jerusalem knot of contradictions’ has become the symbol of all of the key questions related to the opposition between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs. It has been impossible to ‘untwist’ this knot with available diplomatic methods, (rather than to cut it, which is what is happening today), proving that the ‘Palestinian issue’ can have – and needs – an alternative solution. In turn, this can facilitate a situation where the international community will have other productive ideas on the table.