Jerusalem, the Israel view: This really isn't that big a deal

Trump's declaration on Jerusalem has sparked widespread protests among Palestinians and their supporters

Trump's declaration on Jerusalem has sparked widespread protests among Palestinians and their supporters

Friday, December 15, 2017

My home city, Jerusalem, has been in the news following President Trump’s announcement that he recognised the city as Israel’s capital. Israelis from both left and right celebrated and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas argued America was no longer an honest broker in the peace process, a step that may have led Vice President Pence to postpone next week’s trip to the region.

While analysts rushed to write obituaries to the two-state solution and crowds violently demonstrated, as of now things seem to be under control, and most Arab states were only lukewarm in their criticism of Trump’s move. As journalist Matti Friedman recently tweeted “Jerusalem, December 2017: Never in the field of human conflict has so much been written by so many who know so little.”

For Israel, gaining recognition of Jerusalem as its capital is symbolically important. The city hosts the seat of its Parliament and Supreme Court as well as the Western Wall and Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest sites. And even if the Palestinians get 100% of their demands in any peace negotiations, there would still be large chunks of Jerusalem that would be Israel’s capital.

Yet when Trump talks about recognising the city as Israel’s capital, and when the Arab world warns about the dangers of such a move, what Jerusalem are they talking about (and is it the same Jerusalem?)

Part of the challenge in considering the often zero sum policies in the city relate to the shifting borders of Jerusalem over the last 70 years.

As part of the 1947 UN partition plan, the area of Jerusalem, which reached southwards to Bethlehem and incorporated 187 square kilometres, was intended to be an internationalised corpus separatum - a city which has its own political status.

The armistice agreements following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence left Israel controlling the western part of the city (38 square kilometres), with Jordan having captured the eastern part (6 square kilometres) including the Old City and so-called Holy Basin, a reality not recognised by the international community. In 1967 control over Jerusalem and the city’s borders changed again, with Israel capturing east Jerusalem and the West Bank (as well as Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights) and subsequently expanding the municipal borders of Jerusalem to not only include the area of former Jordanian east Jerusalem, but an additional 22 Arab villages comprising 64 square kilometres to the east.

Post-1967 municipal Jerusalem then included the Western part, the Eastern part, and the new areas further to the east that had never historically been considered part of the city – in total 108 square kilometres. In 1993, the city’s borders expanded westwards and today municipal Jerusalem today comprises 123 square kilometres.

So which Jerusalem is everyone talking (and arguing) about? Is it the western part of the city, where Palestinians have no territorial claims and which the international community recognise as sovereign Israel? Is it the entire municipal area which includes areas the international community sees as occupied, and which the Palestinians claim as their future capital while Israel calls it an eternal, divisible part of Jerusalem?  Or is it the Old City and Holy Basin – a deeply emotive place that goes to the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

International consensus

One concept that would have been helpful in Trump’s speech was that of ‘constructive specifity’. Because while ‘Jerusalem’ comprises four different components, three of them (which make up almost 99% of the total area) actually have an international consensus around them. Not that you’d know it from all the shouting.

For example, Jewish neighbourhoods in western Jerusalem are seen as an integral part of the State of Israel and moving embassies to the west of the city should not be a big deal. Jewish neighbourhoods built east of the 1967 line are considered part of occupied territory, but peace negotiations have generally planned for them to become part of Israel in a final status agreement with the Palestinians following land swaps.

Meanwhile, Arab villages which were not part of Jordanian East Jerusalem but were annexed to Jerusalem after the Six Day War are considered by the international community to be part of a future Palestinian capital (although that is disputed by some in Israel, who see these areas as an indivisible part of the capital.)  The only area within the current borders of municipal Jerusalem on which there is controversy is the Old City / Holy Basin and this has to be left for final status negotiations between the sides.

But even though Trump’s speech was more ambiguous, many of his opponents (and supporters) seem to not have read past the media headlines. Because in addition to recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he also stressed that the issue of future borders and sovereignty arrangements will be a result of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. As the EU and Arab League hurried to oppose US policy, it will be crucial for the administration to clarify these points in the weeks ahead.

Calev Ben Dor is Director of Research at BICOM