Trump's Jerusalem statement puts Israel's future at risk

Last night’s announcement that the United States intends to upend decades of established policy and international consensus in Jerusalem is the logical outcome of a world led by Trumps and Netanyahus: leaders more interested in playing to the Twitter gallery than taking brave steps to make the world a better place.

President Trump could have stood up and said that the United States will move its Embassy to Jerusalem and recognise Israeli West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – alongside recognising Palestinian East Jerusalem as the intended capital of the future State of Palestine. That would have clarified American policy and been a bold step towards his ever-more elusive “ultimate deal”. But no. Instead, the furthest he would go was to claim that he was not passing comment on “the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders”.

That is bafflingly disingenuous from the apparent Leader of the Free World. To even mention “Jerusalem” in this context without making clear the very real legal distinction between West and East Jerusalem is to demonstrate sheer, unbridled ignorance. In 1967, after Israel gained control of East Jerusalem in the 6 Day War, the municipality’s boundaries were extended deep into territory that had never before been part of the city. Thousands of Palestinians suddenly came under the control of what had previously been Israeli West Jerusalem. This is the “undivided Jerusalem” about which Israeli government ministers wax lyrical.

Under international law, Israel does not have the right to impose sovereignty on territory gained in war, and all serious peace plans have included both Israeli and Palestinian capitals in Jerusalem. It is clear, however, based on the reactions of many ministers in the Likud-led government, that they are not interpreting Trump’s caveat to mean that they may have to cede control of some of Jerusalem for a future peace.

Nearly 40% of Jerusalem’s residents are Palestinians, and the vast majority of them have not been granted Israeli citizenship – despite being born in Israel’s “united and eternal capital”. Their Jerusalem is fundamentally different to the Jerusalem that would be recognised by most Israelis.

These are not merely “contested borders”, they are issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over which lives on both sides have been lost. To ignore them is to provide both Palestinian and Israeli politicians an excuse to avoid even trying to resolve the conflict. Hardline Israeli nationalists can say, with some justification, that they do not need to make concessions because the American President has their back. Hardline Palestinian nationalists can say that any peace process led by Donald Trump is stacked against them from the beginning. In both cases, Israelis and Palestinians will continue to suffer, and the risk of increased violence grows greater.  

Few Israelis will have slept sounder last night or woken up differently this morning with the knowledge that the United States thinks that their capital is indeed their capital. Trump’s announcement won’t reduce skyrocketing rents, nor put more money in their pay-packets. It won’t deal with the allegations of government corruption that brought 20,000 people to the streets in Tel Aviv last week.  

However, in order to have a secure future, Israelis do need a two-state solution. That means an independent State of Palestine, an end to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. The President’s words have just made that harder to achieve.

Ethan Schwartz is JLM’s International Officer.