For more than 20 years, it has been the policy of the United States government that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that the U.S. embassy should be moved there. However, the U.S. Jerusalem Embassy Act (1995) had a loophole–a waiver that allowed the President to wait for an opportune time to move the embassy. Although the embassy was not moved, the Jerusalem Embassy Act nevertheless remained U.S. law.
So while many Presidents pledged to move the embassy while campaigning for the presidency, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, once elected, the U.S. Embassy remained in Tel Aviv. Even Barack Obama had pledged to keep Jerusalem united as the eternal capital of Israel. Yet he undermined his commitment by failing to veto the 2016 one sided UN resolution that called the existence of Jerusalem’s historic Jewish Quarter “a flagrant violation of international law.”
Yet, on December 6, 2017, current President Donald Trump fulfilled his campaign pledge to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. President Trump is such a divisive figure, that some, who actually supported the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, have repudiated his recent decision. While the President’s base, some who were not even aware of the Embassy Act, support the decision just because President Trump made it. Both of these approaches are wrong. Support or opposition for a policy should not be determined by partisanship but by the merits of the policy.
Some are indeed sincerely maintaining today that the United States recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is somehow wrongheaded, a break with past United States policy, a threat to end the peace process, and an invitation to violence. To understand the merits of this Jerusalem policy, we need to move from fictional history or conjectures about the future to actual facts and reason. Here is my attempt to give context and clarity to this recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Jerusalem has always been a Jewish city; a fact that is often forgotten. King David made it Israel’s capital 3,000 years ago. Even in the many years of dispersion, Jewish people composed the predominant population of Jerusalem. When the UN partitioned Palestine in 1947, they had the pipedream of making Jerusalem an international city under UN governance. Yet the invasion of Israel by six Arab nations in the 1948 War of Independence included attacking Jerusalem, dividing the city for the next 19 years. The newer section of Jerusalem to the West, outside the ancient walled city, remained in Jewish hands and under Israeli sovereignty. The Jordanian army conquered the Old City and promptly ethnically cleansed it of its Jewish people, razed the Jewish Quarter, destroying synagogues and homes and desecrating ancient Jewish cemeteries. Only in 1967, when the Jordanians attacked Jewish Jerusalem, was Israel able to capture the old city, reunite Jerusalem, and guarantee free access to and protection of all sites, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.
With the reestablishment of the ancient Jewish quarter, Israel officially annexed the old City of Jerusalem in 1980. In 1995, both Houses of the United States Congress overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and calling for the U.S. Embassy to be moved there. President Clinton signed the Embassy Act into law but then began signing a waiver every six months, to delay the move until the U.S. President deemed the time appropriate. Each president since then has also issued these same waivers. Nevertheless, U.S. law since 1995 has recognized that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel. Thus, the recent announcement was not a break with United States policy, but the fulfillment of it. Additionally, although most people are not aware of it, Russia recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in April 2017, without any protests or problems in the Arab world.
As President Trump stated in his announcement, accepting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is merely recognizing reality. Jerusalem has been the capital since the birth of Israel in 1948. It is the seat of Israel’s government, housing the Knesset, the High Court of Justice, and the Prime Minister’s and President’s residences. Moreover, there is no question that whatever is decided about how to share Jerusalem in a possible peace deal with the Palestinians, Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital. This is a reality and not an issue under dispute. Even the United Nations does not anticipate a peace agreement that will ever make Jerusalem an international city. The Palestinian disappointment with President Trump’s decision is rooted in their denial of reality, with their objective that one day Israel will cease to exist and that the Palestinians will take over all of Jerusalem. The United States needs to make policy based on reality, not far fetched fantasies.
Some have objected that the United States recognition of Jerusalem effectively ends the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Apparently, those holding this position are aware of some fictional peace process unknown to the rest of the world. In actuality, the Palestinian Authority have refused to participate in direct peace negotiations for more than ten years. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, rejected a two state solution offer from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, without even a counter offer. Since then there has been no peace process, despite the best efforts of the United States and Israel’s standing offer to come to the table for negotiations without any preconditions.
Even so, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should not be an impediment to peace negotiations should the Palestinians ever choose to proceed. Clearly, United States recognition of Jerusalem would not inhibit the concerned parties, Israelis and Palestinians, from forging a peace agreement, even with adjustments to Jerusalem’s boundaries as part of it, if necessary.
Not only would United States recognition of Jerusalem not impede a peace agreement, it might actually make it more likely as the history of past advances to the peace process demonstrate. For example, the situation after the first Gulf War, when Yasser Arafat and the PLO stood alone in the Arab World in support of Saddam Hussein’s aggression. After Iraq’s defeat by the U.S. led coalition, the Palestinians found themselves ostracized, alone in the world, without their traditional support. In order to regain support and a place in the Arab world, Arafat and the PLO had to enter into a peace process with Israel, and thus the Oslo Accords were born.
On the other hand, President Obama’s policy of creating daylight between the United States and Israel, resulted in the Palestinians refusing to come to the peace table. If President Obama insisted that Israel stop enlarging settlements as a precondition to peace talks, then how could Mahmoud Abbas be less insistent than the U.S. President? So, although the Palestinians had previously negotiated, regardless of Israel’s settlement policy, after President Obama made his demands, they abandoned peace discussions.
Furthermore, President Obama’s failure to veto the egregious United Nations December 2016 Resolution 2334 against Israel, led the Palestinians to believe that they did not have to make any concessions to achieve their objectives. Resolution 2334 stated that “any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem,” have “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.” This meant that Israel’s restoration of the Jewish quarter, the building of a plaza by the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, and the rebuilding of Jewish homes, was a “flagrant violation of international law.” Why would the Palestinians negotiate for peace if their desired outcomes were already recognized by the United Nations and the United States. However, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital overturns this perception. This decision has demonstrated to the world and the Palestinians that the new U.S. government will not abide with that wrongheaded resolution and that Palestinians will need to negotiate peace to achieve a state. Therefore, the Unites States recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should rejuvenate the presently moribund and failed peace process.
One serious objection to the United States recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel is that it will spark Palestinian violence in Israel and Muslim attacks on U.S. Diplomatic offices in the Arab world. It is feared that U.S. recognition will set the Middle East on fire. However, apart from issues related to Israel and Jerusalem, the Arab World is already aflame. In fact, the history of Palestinian violence demonstrates that some extremist Palestinians do not need a reason to become violent, they just need a pretense. For example, in 1929 some elderly, pious Jewish men put a few chairs besides the Western Wall, so they could sit while praying. The Mufti of Jerusalem called this an attempt to attack the Al Aqsa Mosque and instigated rioting. After killing 17 Jews in Jerusalem, Arab mobs attacked Hebron and killed 67 Jewish men, women and children. By the end of the week, Arab mobs had murdered 133 Jews.
This pattern of violence has been replicated over and over, even when agreements were in place. In 1996, Israel opened the back end of the underground Western Wall tunnels to allow greater flow of tourists through the tunnels. This exit was made only after the Israeli government had negotiated an agreement with the Palestinian Authority to do so. One objective was to bring tourists into the Muslim quarter in order to provide business opportunities for the Palestinian shopkeepers there. Nevertheless, Yasser Arafat, despite his previous agreement, declared that the tunnel opening was an attack on Al Aqsa, encouraging riots against Israeli police and military.
So will there be riots as a result of the recognition decision? Since the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are calling for 3 “days of rage,” it is quite possible. However, it is not likely that the Palestinian people are ready to launch a full scale Intifada, to counter a U.S. decision that will not change any possible final status agreement in any substantive way. There are some 1 to 1 ½ million Palestinians in Israel. It is unlikely that they will want to have their livelihoods and lifestyle, upended by prolonged violence. Moreover, the great problem in the Middle East now is Iranian nuclear ambitions. The new anti-Iranian coalition being forged between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, recognizes the need for Israel to participate. These Arab states will hopefully attempt to influence the Palestinians to abandon violence and enter genuine peace negotiations so that the greatest threat to peace, Iran, can be addressed.
Of course, most important for United States foreign policy, is that it ought to do what is right, regardless of threats of violence or attempts to intimidate. And the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the right thing to do.
Does the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have anything to do with the Scriptures? Plainly, it does. It could be said that Jerusalem is God’s capital. Psalm 132:13-14 declares, “For the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His home; ‘This is My resting place forever; I will make My home here because I have desired it.’” Not only is it God’s capital but He has given Jerusalem to the Jewish people as their eternal capital. He tells them that He “will establish it forever” (Psalm 48:8). Therefore, Israel is to “Go around Zion, encircle it; count its towers, note its ramparts, tour its citadels” (Psalm 48:12-13). These actions are emblematic of receiving God’s gift of this great city to the Jewish people.
Some have questioned whether the Jewish people are still recipients of the land promises of the Bible’s Abrahamic Covenant and have objected to what they call “territorial theology.” In response, it can be said that to believe that God took His land promise away from the nation He chose is tantamount to calling God unfaithful and a promise breaker. Moreover, it is not a “territorial theology” to recognize God’s promise of land to the Jewish people but a “faithfulness theology.” It is a view of God that understands that Israel’s unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah will not cancel God’s faithfulness (Romans 3:3). In the words of Paul, “God must be true, even if everyone [else] is a liar” (Romans 3:4).
Besides the land promise, there is also biblical prophecy. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital does not add to nor does it diminish the significance of Jerusalem in end of days Bible prophecy. It is this city that one day will become “a cup of staggering for the peoples” and “a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who try to lift it will injure themselves severely when all the nations of the earth gather against her” (Zechariah 12:3-4). At that time, the nation of Israel will finally look to their Messiah to deliver them and He will return to save them from the nations. Then, “the Lord will go out to fight against those nations as He fights on a day of battle” and “His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives” providing a way of safety for the Jewish people (Zech 14:3-4). These events remind us it is the same Jewish people who received the promise of Jerusalem and the same Lord who will deliver the city of Jerusalem yet in the future. This is true regardless of any United States recognition of Jerusalem.
In 1948, at the end of the British Mandate, Israel was about to declare its independence. At that time, the United States Department of State was squarely opposed to any recognition of Israel by President Harry Truman and tried to influence him against it. Moreover, the greatest ally of the United States, Great Britain, also rejected Israel’s statehood and attempted to convince President Truman from recognizing Israel. Nevertheless, the President directed the United States Ambassador to the UN to grant Israel de facto recognition as soon as word came of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. He did so only because he deemed it the right thing to do.
President Donald Trump has become convinced of recognizing the reality that every state has a right to determine its own capital. Furthermore, it is only appropriate to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the United States’ greatest ally in the Middle East despite the objections of the State Department or the allies of the United States. Regardless of one’s opinion of President Trump, in a manner similar to Harry Truman, the President of the United States has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital because he correctly determined, it was the right thing to do.