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Trump Set to Recognize Jerusalem - but Don't Panic Just Yet

Beyond possible movements on the ground, will Trump’s policy change on Jerusalem have any real implications?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israel border police forces patrol near the Western Wall and Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount compound on December 5, 2017.
Israel border police forces patrol near the Western Wall and Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount compound on December 5, 2017.Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In December 1949, 68 years ago next week, when Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided to move the capital to Jerusalem, many of his colleagues opposed the idea. Finance Minister Eliezer Kaplan said it would be a “fatal mistake and unnecessary provocation of the United States,” which had just designated Jerusalem a “corpus separatum” and separate entity, under international jurisdiction. Knesset Speaker Yosef Shprintzak was more concerned about logistics of moving the parliament to the then-isolated city and the need to find places for the MKs to sleep overnight. "The arrangements for the move were accompanied by crying and difficulties kept appearing.” But Ben-Gurion was insistent that Israel must exercise its sovereignty over the western half of Jerusalem it controlled, to prevent any move “internationalizing” the city.

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The fears of the opponents were not realized. War did not break out and sanctions were not announced against Israel. On the other hand, neither has the world recognized Israel’s sovereignty, over either half of Jerusalem. The foreign embassies remained in Tel Aviv. While world leaders make state visits to the western side of Jerusalem, they never actually acknowledge it is Israel’s capital. Sixty-eight years after Ben Gurion’s decision, U.S. President Donald Trump will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But despite all the furor his announcement is already causing, it will probably have little effect on the ground.

It is still not clear whether the recognition will remain an empty gesture – Trump will probably sign the six-month waiver postponing the actual transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. Even if he doesn’t, the embassy’s move will be manifested in a simple change of the sign outside the current West Jerusalem U.S. Consulate. Nearly all the embassy’s functions will remain, for a long while, in Tel Aviv. The U.S. State Department is still in disarray since Trump’s inauguration, and is drastically understaffed. A major logistical operation of building a new embassy in Jerusalem and moving hundreds of employees 60 kilometers eastward is beyond their current capabilities. The remaining diplomats, who are against the move anyway, won’t be in any hurry to carry it out.

But beyond the movements on the ground, will Trump’s announcement have any real implications?

>> Jerusalem for dummies: Why the world doesn’t recognize it as Israel’s capital

The Palestinians, Jordanians and Europeans have all warned that it will be a “blow to the peace process,” which would indeed be a terrible thing if there was a peace process - or if you believe the Trump administration has a real chance of coming up with a peace plan that Israelis and Palestinians may ever accept. If you think this is a real option, then why is that same administration now throwing now a massive wrench in the works? When an Israeli government and a Palestinian leadership are serious once again about making peace, the U.S. recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital won’t be an obstacle to resuming the process. The recognition wouldn't include the city's eastern side that Palestinians demand for their own capital.

Trump’s main foreign policy overtures have so far been to the Saudis, who have objected to the embassy move in very muted tones and are almost certainly accepting it quietly. They are far more focused on challenging Iran’s growing influence in the region, and are not looking to jeopardize their relationship with the U.S. or quiet alliance with Israel on the Palestinians’ behalf. Egypt, another regional power currently focused on its own issues, particularly fighting ISIS in the Sinai, is not overly concerned about the Palestinians’ protest and is more interested in safeguarding its security cooperation with Israel in Sinai. The only major Muslim leader who has put his personal credibility on the line is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who threatened repercussions against Israel that went as far as cutting off diplomatic relations. But it would be hard for him to justify such a move because of an American decision, especially as Turkey has only recently begun to rebuild its ties with Israel.

The only real implication could be a renewed wave of violence from the Palestinians. That certainly is a possibility and the Israeli security establishment has prepared for a variety of scenarios over the next few days. While an uptick in violence will not be surprising, it is unlikely to become a prolonged wave.

The “stabbing intifada” which began in late 2015 petered out after a few months and remained a trend limited to the actions of individuals, never spreading to the wider Palestinian community. Another short wave of violence over security arrangements around the Temple Mount in July this year lasted just a week and didn’t spread beyond Jerusalem. There are no indications of an appetite in the West Bank or Gaza for another Intifada, so there is no reason to expect that this time will be any different. The Palestinian factions are still focused on trying to achieve the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement and to improve the beleaguered Gaza Strip's economic situation. Any outbreak of violence is almost certain to be short-lived.

The U.S. Embassy in Israel may or may not move to Jerusalem by the time Trump leaves the White House, but even if it does, other countries are unlikely to emulate Trump and move their embassies to Jerusalem in the near future.

It won’t affect the lives of Jerusalemites, considering the only government that can improve life in the city is Israel's – for example by moving the Defense Ministry with its thousands of jobs and soldiers from Tel Aviv. It probably won’t change the situation on the ground or make peace with the Palestinians any closer, or that much further for that matter. It is just another empty gesture by an impetuous president which in a few days will be forgotten.

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