Thursday, December 21, 2017

Oh, Jerusalem

Today's UN General Assembly vote demanding that the US rescind its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is another object lesson in the poverty of the "Art of the Deal." With 128 nations voting for the resolution and only 8 joining the US in opposition (with 35 abstentions), few events have so dramatically illustrated the depths of isolation to which the Trump White House has brought the US internationally. The embarrassment of the moment was exacerbated by the empty threats made by Trump himself, who declared that US aid would be denied to those nations that supported the resolution. The hollow bluster of such pronouncements was cast into stark relief when staunch US allies such as the UK, France, and Germany joined the overwhelming majority in defiance of the White House.

What effect this will have on Trump's image here at home is difficult to say. His Evangelical supporters, for whom the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital is considered a precondition of the fulfillment of prophecy, will no doubt be very moved by his perceived adherence to principle. Some of my fellow American Jews may view this as an extraordinary gesture of support for Israel. But because the question of Jerusalem's status is so poorly understood by most Americans (even those, like Jews and Evangelicals, most emotionally invested in the issue), the long-term effect of Trump's "Jerusalem adventure" will most likely be to confirm Americans' initial impression of the President, for good or ill.

The controversy over Jerusalem dates back to 1948. In the original partition plan endorsed by the UN, Jerusalem was designated a specially mandated international protectorate, in deference to its broad religious significance.  The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 undermined that plan, leaving the city partitioned between a Western zone under Israeli control and an Eastern zone under the control of Jordan. The residents of East Jerusalem were never wholly reconciled to Jordanian rule. In 1951 King Abdullah I of Jordan was fatally shot by a Palestinian assassin while visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.

Jerusalem came under unified Israeli control only after the Six Day War in 1967. East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, were among the territories that were occupied by the Israeli Defense Forces in that conflict and that have been the focus of negotiations over a proposed Palestinian State. The question of whether or not Jerusalem is "really" Israel's capital is thus something of a red herring. Israel's government has been housed in the western section of the city since 1948, thus any debate over the location of the Israeli capital seems absurd. But what is really at stake in this controversy are the municipal boundaries of the city itself: the question is not whether Jerusalem is Israel's capital, but how much of Jerusalem is (and will remain) in Israel?

On this latter issue the Israelis themselves are ambiguous. Though the "Jerusalem Law" of 1980 declared the city a unified municipality under Israeli jurisdiction, Israeli leaders have persistently denied that this constituted an "annexation" of East Jerusalem. Why would the Israeli government be so coy about the territorial status of its own capital? There are several reasons, but they mainly resolve on the implications for Israel of "annexation" under international law. Chiefly, "annexation" would obligate the Israeli government to unconditionally grant citizenship to all residents of East Jerusalem, which it has refused to do. Residents of East Jerusalem are deemed "permanent residents" of Israel (the equivalent of holding a "green card" here in the US). They may apply to become citizens of Israel, but only on the condition that they renounce all other citizenship and pledge loyalty to the state of Israel, which few Arab East Jerusalemites have been willing to do (as this is naturally perceived as a betrayal of the cause of as-yet-unrealized Palestinian sovereignty). Even then they may be denied citizenship on various criteria.

Why, if the Israelis were so motivated to claim Jerusalem as their capital, would they be so circumspect about granting its Arab residents citizenship? Several factors made the Israelis unwilling to unilaterally and comprehensively naturalize the residents of East Jerusalem, but chief among these was the presence of the Shuafat refugee camp, which housed Palestinians displaced by the 1948 war, in East Jerusalem at the time that the IDF occupied the territory. The five hundred families resident in Shuafat had previously owned homes in Israeli cities, some of which, like Lydda, had been forcibly cleared of Arabs by the IDF during the 1948 conflict. Making them into Israeli citizens would have opened the Israeli courts to claims for restitution that would quickly have become very costly and potentially complicated, especially if the residents of Shuafat made pleas on behalf of relatives resident in Jordan, Lebanon, or elsewhere. Thus though Benjamin Netanyahu presents the status of Jerusalem to the world as an innocuously symbolic formality unworthy of controversy, the policies of the Israeli government itself acknowledge that the question of East Jerusalem is deeply implicated in all of the most existentially fraught issues implicit in the enterprise of distinguishing Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty.

The fact that the 300,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem cannot be easily accommodated with Israeli enfranchisement without opening up the can of worms that is the question of a "Palestinian right to return (i.e. how many of the 6 million members of the Palestinian diaspora will be empowered to take up residence and/or claim compensation for property owned in Israel)" may help explain why, at the Camp David Summit of 2000, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to concede that East Jerusalem should become part of Palestine. Since then most international observers have assumed that East Jerusalem would fall to Palestine in any two-state solution, especially since the removal of East Jerusalem would deprive that prospective Palestinian state of a significant portion of its population and economic assets, rendering it unsustainable in the long term. This is why world governments have generally refused to establish their embassies in Jerusalem until the final status of the city's territorial parameters is resolved.

Donald Trump is not a man who does complicated, thus there is little hope that he can ever be made to understand the controversy that he has courted. The isolation and embarrassment to which he has subjected the US are made all the more execrable by the gratuitous timing and manner of his actions. This policy was not made with any forethought or consultation with key government agencies, but was resurrected from a pile of discarded controversies for the purpose of distracting the media and the electorate from the various scandals in which the administration has been continuously embroiled from its inception. What the long term effect of Trump's bluster and the UN resolution will be on Mideast politics is difficult to predict. The only certain outcome is that US influence in the region (and in global diplomacy more generally) will be reduced for as long as the current administration remains in power. 

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