This article was published in Arab News on December 12, 2017.
US Embassy move adds to Jerusalem’s complex history
US President Donald Trump’s decision to move his country’s Embassy to Jerusalem seems to be motivated by domestic policy considerations. He needed an action that could be presented to the public as a success that other American presidents had failed to achieve. The moment was also auspicious, because the Arab countries were at loggerheads with each other.
This move needs to be judged alongside the historical background of Jerusalem’s place in Jewish culture.
The Roman Empire and its Eastern successor, the Byzantine Empire, ousted the Jews from Jerusalem and outlawed their return. The city enjoyed a period of relative calm during the Ottoman administration in subsequent centuries.
When the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II was asked at around the turn of the 20th century by a group of Jewish leaders to sell a homeland for Jews in Palestine, he retorted: “My people won these lands with their blood. We will give it only at the same price.”
Very few in the international community believe White House recognition could contribute to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, making a commitment on behalf of the British government to establish a home for the Jewish people. At that time, Palestine was still part of the Ottoman Empire, meaning Britain was promising to give its country’s Jewish community a territory that did not belong to the United Kingdom, but was occupied by British troops.
In the late 1930s, the founding father of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, was worried about the news that a homeland was being prepared for Jews in Palestine. He insistently asked US President Franklin D. Roosevelt not to support this project and drew his attention to the negative consequences of such a move. He repeated this position in another letter in 1943 and in his encounter with the president on board US Navy cruiser Quincy in Egypt two years later. President Roosevelt’s response was: “Your Majesty will doubtless recall that on previous occasions I communicated to you that I would take no action in my capacity as chief of the executive branch of this government which might prove hostile to the Arab people.” President Trump used a similar narrative when he was launching his initiative to move the US Embassy, and said he was taking this action to help the Palestinians.
In 1947, the UN adopted Resolution 181 to divide Palestine and to create the Israeli state. Part III (A) of the Resolution established Jerusalem as a “corpus separatum,” which means a separate body, separate entity — neither Israeli nor Palestinian.
Therefore, the US’ decision has to be regarded as moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv in Israel to an entity that is not Israel. The resolution also provided that the city would be placed under UN administration and that the governor could be neither Israeli nor Palestinian.
The status of corpus separatum eroded because of Israel’s efforts to dilute it and because of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.
This short historic background gives an idea how the Jewish cause evolved throughout millennia.
President Trump said he was taking this initiative to help Palestinians. Very few people in the international community, including some reasonable Israelis, believe that such a move could contribute to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. On the contrary, the international community, almost unanimously, opposed the move, but this opposition remained in words.
This US decision may lead to a new intifada and to attacks on Israeli and American interests in these two countries or elsewhere, but the US and Israel may have assessed that they will be able to cope with them. The damage done to the Palestinian cause will remain forever.