The US Pivot on Jerusalem

Breaking with decades of U.S. policy, President Donald Trump on Wednesday recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a declaration that set off a wave of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces and drew sharp criticism from U.S. allies in the Middle East and beyond.

Here’s a look at why U.S. recognition of the holy city as Israel’s capital matters.

Jerusalem’s current status

Israel has considered Jerusalem its capital since the state’s establishment in 1948 and sees the city as the ancient capital of the Jewish people.

In the 1967 Mideast war, Israel captured the city’s eastern sector and later annexed it in a move that is not recognized internationally. Israel’s government ministries and institutions are all located in Jerusalem and Israelis across the political spectrum see the city as their capital.

Israel is likely the only country in the world whose capital isn’t recognized internationally.

The Palestinians equally lay claim to Jerusalem and want the eastern part of the city as capital of their future state. Some 200,000 Palestinians live in that part of the city and Palestinians claim a deep cultural, historical and religious connection to the city.

The Old City, located in east Jerusalem, is home to sites holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. These include the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

It is one of the most explosive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to that end, the U.S., along with most other countries, has maintained its embassy in Tel Aviv, saying the status of Jerusalem should be resolved between the sides in negotiations.

The importance of Trump’s declaration

The U.S. remains the world’s most influential superpower and a key player across the region. For the past quarter of a century, it has played a special role as the lead mediator between Israel and the Palestinians in on-again, off-again peace talks.

Although it cannot singlehandedly dictate a solution to the Jerusalem dispute, its opinions carry great weight with both parties and traditionally influence others to follow its lead.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of Trump’s most vocal supporters globally and has been outspoken about his gratitude for Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem. But the Palestinians, and much of the international community, view the declaration as a unilateral action that could dash hopes for a negotiated two-state solution.

Waning American influence

As with other issues such as climate change and global free trade agreements, Trump finds himself at odds with the international community.

American friends and foes alike have almost universally criticized Trump’s decision with exceptionally harsh language. The European Union, along with Germany, Britain and France, as well as the pope and key Arab allies, have denounced the move.

While the U.S. remains a power in the region, its influence in the Middle East has been on the decline. Some saw U.S. weakness in the Obama administration’s handling of the war in Syria and its concessions to Iran for the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump’s insistence on putting “America first” seems to presage a further drawdown.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has vowed to rally the world against the U.S. decision, reaching out to traditional Arab allies as well as Europeans nations. As a first step, the Palestinians asked the U.N. Security Council to demand that the U.S. decision be rescinded.

Anger and weariness

Trump’s announcement has elicited shock, sadness and anger from Arabs across the Middle East. But there have also been feelings of resignation and shrugs from many who have long given up on their leaders standing up to either Israel or the United States.

The Palestinians have been worn down by decades of conflict and years of stalled peace efforts, as their cause has been overshadowed by the fighting in Syria and Iraq, and regional concerns about Iran. Many of their Sunni Arab allies are believed to have expanded covert ties with Israel to counter Tehran.

Randa Slim, an analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, tweeted Wednesday: “In times of fear and repression and revolution fatigue I will not be surprised if we don’t see the kind of demonstrations people expect. This does not mean people are not angry. How people express their anger is different than in past.”

Israel and the U.S. may be counting on this crisis to pass, allowing Trump to renew his efforts to clinch what he calls “the ultimate deal,” while leaving Israel firmly in control of the holy city.


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