Heaven and earth are said to meet on Jerusalem’s sacred esplanade where the city’s most famous resident is called God. But theological principles travel well beyond the splendor of these precincts turning ordinary struggles for power into battles between good and evil sanctified as much by ritual as by death.
If failing to remember its holiness is unusual, as the Psalmist says, forgetting the Jerusalem inhabited by ordinary people who work, attend school, open and close businesses is normal. As Israel’s national capital, the site of its parliament and most government offices, Jerusalem has become the symbolic battleground for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even though the sacred texts of Islam and Judaism could just as easily render the site a force for shared celebration and peace as for war.
For notwithstanding the current chorus of political and religious leaders denying the legitimacy of Jewish claims and thereby casting doubt on their own canonical sources, Jerusalem’s sanctity for Islam derives from the special status first accorded it by Jews.
Into this mix stepped President Donald Trump, who announced the US’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital with instructions to move the embassy from Tel Aviv into this most contested of holy cities.
It is a long overdue move. A mark of sovereignty is the capacity to designate a capital city. Israel deserves nothing less. Nor does it adversely affect the so-called peace process.
Nothing the President did with his declaration of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital precludes the realization of any of the principles of the Oslo Accords and the expected discussions concerning the possibility of part of Jerusalem becoming the capital of a Palestinian state should it ever be established.
Whatever the president’s motivations, the timing of the declaration has some important consequences. First, it dismantles the UN Resolution (2334) passed in the last months of President Barack Obama’s second term, which declared even the construction around Jewish holy sites, like the Wall, a violation of International Law. By contrast to proclamations issued by UNESCO, ignoring Jerusalem’s Jewish heritage—passed without opposition from European countries like France and Spain—President Trump’s declaration restores some balance to recognizing the reality of Israel as a Jewish state.
Second, the American policy comes at a time when many of the Arab states are more concerned with Iran than with Israel and with a turmoil they are desperate to contain in a world no longer as beholden to their oil and natural gas as in the past.
Third, Trump is saying something profound about the so-called peace process that most pundits and even experts are unwilling to recognize or have forgotten. No American or foreign initiative has ever moved Palestinians and Israelis into a peace process. From the very moment of Israel’s founding, there have been many efforts to bridge the gaps or forge a plan to bring the parties together. Only after the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) suffered defeats in Jordan and Lebanon, and then was marginalized in the 1980s by the Iran-Iraq War, did it embrace the idea of a political process. And even then, it was difficult to give up the idea of a resistance allowing, if not encouraging, violence against Israel or against what it termed its occupation of Palestinian lands.
Whether or not Arafat actually wanted to rule out the possibility of confronting Israel, he, in fact, called for jihad on a visit to South Africa less than a year after signing the Oslo Accords. Resistance was expected to strengthen international deference to Palestinian demands as a political settlement was pursued. That strategy played out in the second intifada, as Palestinian militants received stipends from other Middle Eastern countries willing and able to pay for the violence. But funds in the region are now tight and channeled to militants waging other battles in other lands. When the Palestinian plight is no longer the major source of Middle Eastern violence, it is also not a regional priority.
Finally, unlike the diplomatic activity set in motion by President Obama, this declaration signals that time may not be on the Palestinian side. The Obama administration tried to aid Palestinians by establishing preconditions that met their demands even before negotiations began. Indulgence of Palestinian hopes to reverse history and shrink Israel’s borders are no longer on offer from President Trump. And with the global shift of energy resources, such deference is no longer necessary.
There may be broad international encouragement for Palestinian leaders to stew in their rage against this declaration and the American policies it implies, but anger is not a strategy that can advance the Palestinian cause.
Most importantly, this declaration moves Jerusalem from heaven to earth. If Jerusalem is a symbol and myth of spirituality and grandeur, no political power has a right to claim it. President Trump has recognized the real Jerusalem that is firmly planted on the ground, the one that Israelis—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—live in and with.