The incoming American president, Donald Trump, intends to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from its current location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The consequences of this could be fatal, according to writer Björn Brenner, researcher of the Middle East at the Swedish National Defense College.
With Trump as president, it is expected that the U.S. will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In the short term, we expect the embassy to move due to violence and unrest throughout the Middle East. In the long term, the move will permanently change Jerusalem’s political and legal status to Israel’s advantage – thus being a major setback for the Palestinians and for future prospects of a two-state solution.
For many, it might sound strange that moving an embassy from one city to another could have such serious consequences. However, this is not about which city is best.
Jerusalem is holy ground for billions of people worldwide and has been for millennia a coveted trophy for major powers. In modern times, Jerusalem has also been the epicenter of the conflict between Israel and the surrounding Arab states. Therefore, what happens to Jerusalem concerns a great many whether you like it or not.
Just because of the sensitive role that Jerusalem plays politically, the U.N. and the international community have, to this day, left the city’s legal status unresolved. Although today Israel claims its sovereignty over all parts of the city, as it has done for the past 50 years, there is truly no international recognition of the Israeli presence. Legally, Jerusalem remains corpus separatum as decided by the U.N. in its partition plan in 1947. Since then, some countries have considered Israel to have de facto control over the city. However, hardly any country in the world, the U.S. included, has given de jure recognition, i.e., the legal definitive recognition, that the city belongs to Israel.
The main reason the international community is waiting for the status change is its crucial role in resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Internally, the international community is well aware that there probably never will be any leaders in either Israel or Palestine who will be able to continue except on the ground that their own country's capital is called Jerusalem. In part, there is no room for maneuvering in the negotiations between the parties, regardless of pressure or change in the surrounding world. That is to say, if the legal status of Jerusalem were changed for Israel's advantage before the Israelis and Palestinians agreed among themselves, there would be no peace and no Palestinian state.
Trump moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would constitute just such an upset to this sensitive status. According to diplomatic rules, embassies are established in capitals. The move would thus mean that the United States legally recognizes West Jerusalem as Israel's capital and thus as Israeli territory – without giving Palestinians any recognition of East Jerusalem at the same time.
Moreover, the United States, through such an approach, signals a green light to the current Israeli government for its expansive settlement policy which is now underway in the eastern parts of Jerusalem outside the West Bank. The fact is that hardly any country in the world recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Israel, especially, is well aware that it would be controversial to advance their positions in Jerusalem. The country has so far retained the seats of several of its ministries and key agencies in Tel Aviv.
The weight and particularly sensitive nature of this matter is well known in the U.S. That the country's political leadership has so far taken this very seriously is illustrated by the fact that the U.S. Passport Agency is still not allowed to enter Israel as the country of birth in the passport for U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem, if you were born in the western or eastern part.
Since 1995, when the U.S. Congress approved a relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem, every American president, every six months for 22 years, issued a special exemption order that nevertheless keep the embassy in Tel Aviv. The last such order was issued the other day by President Obama, which expires in June 2017. The president's special intervention in the matter demonstrates the enormous importance of the world's mightiest superpower continuing to condemn the embassy's location.
Thus, there is great concern regarding Trump's proposed relocation of the embassy and where the changing attitudes about Israel could lead. A glimpse of this was given by way of last week's bloody terrorist attack against Israelis in Jerusalem, where the attacker apparently expressed his anger particularly about the embassy’s move. Several political and religious leaders around the world, in the past few days, have said that a U.S. embassy’s move currently exceeds all imaginable “red lines” and could set fire to the entire Middle East.