Jerusalem is a significant city for three big religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It contains holy sites and relics sacred to devotees of each faith. Due to its importance, Jerusalem has been a hotspot in the Middle East as it is divided into eastern and western parts. The article is a summary of Jerusalem conflict.
The question of who controls the city has been ongoing for years since the declaration of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948. Since then, Israel and its neighboring Arab countries have fought a couple of wars with each other over the possession of this Eastern Mediterranean territory and Jerusalem.
The Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and Arab countries ended in absolute victory for Israel. As a result, it captured the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Sinai Peninsula, Old City of Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. This triumphant was a clear setback for Arab nationalism and set up the condition for the rise of political Islam in its place. Israel has declared Jerusalem to be its eternal and undivided capital.
This issue is a sensitive topic for the region as well as the world. There are many important players with different interests. Therefore, any development in this issue has the potential to spark violence and instability. For the Palestinians, East Jerusalem which contains the holy sites is its future capital. Israel, who possesses the western part of the city, wants to incorporate both parts at the Palestinian expense.
Recently, the question over the possession of Jerusalem has reached a new flashpoint since the United States President Donald Trump made his historic announcement on 6 December 2017. He recognized the status of Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and promised to move US embassy there.
It is worth mentioning that the United State Congress passed a law in 1995 which recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It also requires the president to move US embassy from Tel Aviv to the city. Up until now, US presidents have exercised waiver which delays the moving of embassy citing national security issue. Now that President Trump decided to act, the ramification could be huge.
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Immediately, protests sprang up in various parts around the world. US allies in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey have spoken out against Trump’s declaration. Pope Francis of the Vatican has also urged everyone to respect the status quo in Jerusalem. It is obvious that the international community is not in US favor. Only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauded US decision.
57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held a summit in Istanbul just one week after Donald Trump’s announcement.It declared East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine while urged all countries to recognize its statehood. Turkey seems to be the loudest voice in opposing US decision. It blamed some Arab countries for showing weak responses and being afraid of the US pressure. Turkish President RecepTayyipErdoğancalled Israel a “state of terror” while spoke of a plan to open Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem during a speech to his supporters.
On 18 December the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution demanding Trump administration to rescind the decision to move US embassy to Jerusalem and recognize it as Israel’s capital. This drafted resolution by Egypt was voted in favor by all but the US ambassador, Nikki R. Haley. She called it an embarrassment and claimed that the US was forced to defend its sovereignty.
On 21 December 2017, the United Nations General Assembly voted for another resolution drafted by Turkey and Yemen demanding that the United States annul its declaration regarding Jerusalem. 128 members voted in favor while 9 others were against. 35 countries chose to remain in abstention in addition to 21 which were not present for the vote.
A large number of US traditional allies including Germany, Japan, France, and Britain all voted for this resolution.Although this vote is largely symbolic due to the fact that it is nonbinding, it clearly shows that the US under Donald Trump administration is becoming more and more isolated on the international stage.
The American ambassador to the UN, Nikki R. Haley, gave a speech after the vote by threatening to take the name of those voted for the resolution. She said that most countries use American influence for their benefits without returning the favor, and in this case, the US will not forget. President Trump has also threatened to cut financial contribution to the UN as he believes it is working against US interest.
What could be the Fallout?
President Donald Trump appears to be successful in putting America on the course of diplomatic isolation. During the election campaign, he promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem and recognize it as Israel’s capital. Therefore, he needs to keep his promise to maintain support. Also, it is possible that there is heavy lobby behind the scene.
Additionally, Trump needs to divert the public attention away from domestic politics as the Russian investigation and controversial GOP tax bill recently could plummet his already low approval rating. However, he is executing foreign policy at the expense of his own country’s influence and reputation abroad. Jerusalem recognition could be just the start of his upcoming many other controversial diplomatic moves.
The two-state solution endorsed by many countries regarding Palestine could be in jeopardy. In this case, the United States will lose its credibility as a reliable peacemaker. The Middle East which is already unstable will plunge further into uncertainty. When the US continues to inflict wound on itself, other international players could come to fill the vacuum. Russia and China could be seen by Arab countries as more reliable partners. With the tide of the civil war in Syria is in Assad’s favor, Russia will certainly capitalize on the anger of Arab countries to strengthen its own influence in the region.
When it comes to the unity of Arab countries against Trump’s move, the prospect appears to be vague. Although Turkey takes the lead in challenging Trump, it doesn’t gain enthusiastic support from fellow Muslim countries.Only 22 countries sent their heads of state and governments to attend OIC summit in Istanbul. 25 other countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt sent lower-ranking officials.
Saudi Arabia is not happy with Turkey due to its support for Qatar which is still under blockade by the Gulf States. Egypt under Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has been at odds with Turkey over the arrest and trial of Muslim Brotherhood members.Turkish President RecepTayyipErdoğan has also become more and more isolated on the international stage as he is at odds with US, NATO, and the EU which are Turkey’s traditional allies. Some experts speculate that Turkey’s loud voice against Trump could be a chance for Erdoğan to break his isolation and gain more support.
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The Middle East is still stuck in a bitter rivalry for supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The House of Saud and Israel have a common enemy. Although it has condemned US decision on Jerusalem, it is very certain that Riyadh and Tel Aviv will still cooperate with one another to counter Iranian influence via intelligence sharing and operational coordination. As a result, a united voice of Arab countries is difficult to muster.
Most Arab countries’ response to the US is mostly rhetorical. It would not go beyond that. The region has experienced the so-called Arab spring with the civil uprising and armed conflicts ranging from Syria to Yemen. People are becoming weary of war and political instability. The advocacy for Palestinian statehood has experienced fatigue.
Regardless, the question of Jerusalem is still a boiling pot that is waiting to spill over if certain political moves cross the line. In the foreseeable future, it will remain a sensitive issue for the region. Will the two-state solution end in disgrace while Palestinians remain stateless? This question will not have an easy answer.
Marmara University, Istanbul, Turkey
Department of Political Science and International Relations