When Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in a speech on Wednesday and announced plans to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, he overturned almost seven decades of US foreign policy.
Since Israel’s founding in 1948, successive US administrations — and indeed almost the entire international community, Australia included — have maintained that the status of Jerusalem is disputed.
It was 100 years ago this month that Anzac troops marched into Jerusalem, capturing it for the Allies from the Ottoman Empire in December 1917. The subsequent 30-year period as a British mandate territory came to an end with the UN partition plan of 1947, which provided for the creation of two states: one Jewish, one Arab. Jerusalem was to be governed by a special international regime because of its unique status.
The Jewish leadership at the time accepted the partition plan. The Arabs rejected the plan and attacked the newly declared state of Israel. When the fighting ceased, Israel was in control of the western half of Jerusalem while the eastern half, including the Old City, was controlled by Jordan. When Israel again came under attack from neighbouring Arab states during the Six-Day War of 1967, it ended up in possession of all of Jerusalem, which has been under full Israeli control since.
It makes no sense to deny the centuries of history that link the Jewish people to Jerusalem, the capital of the ancient kingdoms of Israel, or the revered place Jerusalem holds for the Jewish faith. UN resolutions that attempt to deny this connection are a disservice to history and a discredit to the multilateral system.
It also makes little sense to pretend the western part of Jerusalem is not sovereign Israeli territory — Israel’s Knesset, Supreme Court, the official residences of its prime minister and president, and many other state institutions lie within it.
Foreign dignitaries, including Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, base themselves at west Jerusalem’s King David Hotel during official visits. As an ambassador, I would travel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem several times a week to meet ministers and officials.
Even if Israel were to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, it would remain in possession of west Jerusalem.
In this sense, the US President’s announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is, as he described it, “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality”.
And moving the US embassy to Jerusalem is an acknowledgment that under any possible future scenario, west Jerusalem will remain part of Israeli territory.
But Trump’s new approach does carry with it significant risks. Jerusalem is a hot-button issue in the Middle East and the merest mention of changes to its status are enough to set off violent upheavals throughout the Islamic world. Opinion in the Arab and Islamic worlds will be inflamed by this decision.
Fulfilment of a campaign promise alone cannot justify the risks. If this move is to support efforts towards a peace agreement, as Trump declared, rather than derail the prospects, several steps must accompany it.
First, the US should make clear that Trump’s statement is not an endorsement of Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem, and that it expects a Palestinian capital in the predominantly Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem will emerge during final-status negotiations.
Jerusalem’s inhabitants include Israelis and Palestinians, and the city is holy to the three main monotheistic faiths. Its future status should reflect this character, and the US announcement should not be seen as prejudging this.
Second, the US and Israel must reaffirm, in word and deed, their commitment to maintain the status quo at the holy sites of Jerusalem, including Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) and the Western Wall, and ensure close co-ordination with the Jordanian religious body, the Waqf, that administers Haram al-Sharif. This is critical in addressing Muslim concerns about continued freedom of access to Jerusalem’s holy sites.
Finally, the US — having spent a year in preparatory talks and stocktaking, and much time talking about the “ultimate deal” — should launch a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
This effort should encompass an Israeli-Palestinian track but also extend to a broader peace between Israel and the Arab world. Neither is possible without the other.
With converging interests between Israel and the Arab world over the shared threats of Iranian expansionism and Islamic extremism, and a modernising leadership in Saudi Arabia, the prospects for a peace settlement are more promising than they have been for some time.
Israeli-Palestinian conflict diplomacy is characterised by stale thinking and stale approaches. Too often it has sought to treat the conflict as a simple border dispute, when the source of the conflict runs much deeper.
Too often it has ignored the realities on the ground, seeking to turn back the clock to a fictional 1948. And too often it has failed to confront the myths both sides use to frustrate progress.
One such myth, disturbingly prevalent, denies the legitimacy of the Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem and the land of Israel, and patiently awaits the day that the Jewish people are vanquished in the Middle East. Another myth, favoured by a small but vocal minority, believes that the entirety of Jerusalem and the West Bank rightfully belong to Israel, and the Palestinians will eventually be forced to make way.
If accompanied by a serious peace effort and renewed commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, Trump’s disruptive announcement could help puncture these myths, inject some sorely needed reality into this frozen conflict, and lay the groundwork for genuine progress.
Australia should proceed cautiously. We cannot play a lead role in resolving the conflicts of the Middle East. The most we can be is a supporting actor.
We should encourage the US administration to ensure Trump’s announcement is followed by moves that underpin a renewed peace effort, and we should support such an effort. But we should be gauging developments carefully and be in no rush to replicate US policy or move the Australian embassy to Jerusalem.
Published as an opinion piece in The Australian, 11 December 2017