On December 6, 2017, President Trump formally recognized that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The move was expected, as the White House had telegraphed the decision for several days before the event.
It is an important decision; here’s what you need to know:
Wasn’t Jerusalem already the capital of Israel?
Yes, but this fact was not recognized yet by the international community. The state of Israel has long considered Jerusalem to be its capital. Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, Supreme Court, and other central government offices are all located in Jerusalem.
In addition, Jerusalem has crucial religious significance for the Jewish people, as it is home to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. As a Jewish State, Jerusalem is the spiritual capital of the country as well.
But Jerusalem is also claimed as a capital city by Palestinians, who have maintained that Jerusalem must also be the capital of a Palestinian state in a two-state solution. However, the division of Jerusalem—and where it would or could be divided—is a hotly contested issue between Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community.
As a result, the international community has historically treated the recognition of Jerusalem as a “final status” issue, one to be resolved in the context of a final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Is the Embassy moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
Not yet, but the President indicated that the embassy would eventually move to Jerusalem.
Since the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, the United States has maintained its embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv. After 1967 and the reunification of Jerusalem, there have been growing calls to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, calling for the United States to move its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The bill was not signed by President Clinton, who had himself promised to move the embassy, but it passed with a veto-proof majority. Despite this, no administration has moved the embassy to Jerusalem.
A move of the embassy would be understood in political and religious terms in the region. Politically, the move would be understood as a recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem. Religiously, the move would be understood by some parts of the Muslim world as the recognition by the U.S. of Israeli sovereignty over Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
What does this mean for Middle East peace negotiations?
It’s not yet clear. Leaders from the Arab and Muslim world condemned the move, arguing that it was counterproductive. For instance, ahead of the President’s announcement, Turkish President Erdogan asserted that recognition of Jerusalem was a “red line” for Muslims. However, some have argued that these statements by Arab leaders are mostly bluster and that the recognition of Jerusalem will not make a significant difference in the long run.
On the other hand, the recognition of Jerusalem serves to build trust with Israel and Israeli negotiators at a time when trust between the U.S. and Israel has been historically low. It’s possible that Israel may be more willing to enter into U.S.-led negotiations given this move.
The President and White House officials have maintained that restarting the peace process is a priority for the Administration. It remains to be seen how this new wrinkle will impact those prospects considering the willingness of the Palestinians to come to the table, European allies to participate, and Arab allies to play a constructive role.
What have Arab Christians said about this decision?
Many Arab Christians are concerned about this move. Arab Christians, wherever they live around the world, are religious minorities. Sectarian tensions are already high, the Arab Christians are especially vulnerable to and sensitive about attacks on churches and their communities by extremist elements. Several Middle Eastern Christian leaders in Jerusalem, Jordan, and elsewhere sent letters to President Trump asking for a delay or for caution in making this move.
As the Middle East absorbs this news, let’s pray for the peace of Jerusalem, pray for the safety and flourishing of our Arab brothers and sisters in Christ, and pray our brothers and sisters in majority-Muslim contexts.