by Jon Allen and Alan Freeman
For President Donald Trump and many Israelis, the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem is simply “a recognition of reality,” the fact that Jerusalem and not Tel Aviv is the functioning capital of the Jewish state.
Facts on the ground may be intended to change realities and unfortunately sometimes do, but that does not make them right, just, or legal. Exactly whose reality is the president recognizing? And does a third party, no matter how powerful, have the right to decide on an issue that is key to reaching a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians?
It is true that Israel has annexed West Jerusalem and built its capital there, including its parliament, foreign ministry, and supreme court, and true that diplomats regularly meet in the city with Israeli ministers and officials. But that is no more relevant in international law than the fact that 580,000 Jewish settlers now live in occupied Palestinian territory. Similarly, the fact that Russia now occupies Crimea does not mean that the international community should accept that particular reality.
Would Israel have been as sanguine about the embassy move if President Trump had simultaneously declared East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state, drawn the boundaries between the two capitals, and declared Jerusalem’s three holy sites as international territory? Of course, Trump did nothing of the sort and left these crucial questions unresolved.
In 1947, when the UN created the State of Israel, it divided the land of Palestine in two but declared Jerusalem as a separate territory and placed the city under an international regime until the two sides could decide how best to manage it. In so doing, the UN recognized Jerusalem’s unique status as home to key sites of three of the world’s major religions. Moreover, a decision regarding sovereignty over Jerusalem remains one of the five final-status issues, and perhaps the most important one, which must be resolved if peace is to be achieved.
Many of the key historical events in the region over the past seven decades have had a specific bearing on Jerusalem. After the Arab states rejected the partition plan in 1947, fighting left the city divided, with both sides claiming sovereignty and rejecting the idea of an international regime. The Six Day War of 1967 enabled Israel to take control of all of Jerusalem and annex West Jerusalem. That also led to ongoing construction by Israel in parts of East Jerusalem and in other areas around the city, measures that continue to threaten the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.
Since partition, virtually all states have recognized the importance of Jerusalem’s status in the context of a future peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. While a few countries in the past have moved their embassies to Jerusalem for a time, they never remained there. And countries like Canada and members of the European Union have chosen not to upset the existing balance by pre-empting any negotiations and a final decision in peace talks so they’ve stayed put in Tel Aviv, as they should.
While multiple US presidential candidates have promised to move the embassy during election campaigns, once they entered office and better understood the implications of such a move, they decided against it. In 1979, Prime Minister Joe Clark promised to move our embassy to Jerusalem but once in office, he sent former Conservative leader Robert Stanfield to the region to assess the situation. Not surprisingly, Stanfield returned with a recommendation to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.
Until recently, the United States was viewed as an honest broker by Israel, the Palestinians, and the international community. Moreover, it is the only country that had the leverage to broker a peace deal. Trump has clearly relinquished that role. By making decisions that clearly favour Israel, the US had also undermined moderate forces on the Palestinian side. How can moderates possibly convince their fellow Palestinians that negotiations are a viable way out of the current morass and that the US can be trusted to represent their interests?
In the end, Trump’s embassy decision reduces the chances for negotiations, increases mistrust between the parties, and increases the likelihood of violence. The split-screen television shots of 58 Palestinian deaths in Gaza, whoever was responsible for them, while celebrations of the embassy move went on in Jerusalem are further evidence that little good can come of this decision.
So why did Trump take this decision? Despite his arguments about history, justice, and Mideast peace, it’s clear it was done largely for US domestic reasons. The president wanted to satisfy campaign promises made to casino owner and pro-settlement advocate Sheldon Adelson, who donated over $25 million to the Trump presidential campaign, as well as promises made to US evangelical Christians, a key part of the Trump base. It’s worth noting that Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay, the only three countries that have so far followed the US decision and moved their embassies to Jerusalem, all have large evangelical populations.
Had President Trump truly cared about the future of Israel, a Palestinian state, and the possibility of peace in the region, he would not have broken with seven decades of US policy and practice.
For all the above reasons, Canada should not follow suit.
Jon Allen is a former Canadian Ambassador to Israel (2006–2010) and to Spain (2012–2016).
Alan Freeman is an Honorary Senior Fellow at uOttawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and writes a weekly column for iPolitics.ca.