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Financial Times / Biz - Money

Trump recognises Jerusalem as capital of Israel

Donald Trump has defied warnings from allies across the world and overturned decades of US foreign policy by announcing he will recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and trigger plans to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.

The US president said he would take the landmark step on Wednesday afternoon, describing it as a long overdue move that would advance the peace process and declaring the US would support a two-state solution for the Palestinians and Israelis should the sides embrace such an outcome.

“This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality,” Mr Trump said in an address. “It is also the right thing to do.”

The decision allows Mr Trump to demonstrate resolve on a hugely symbolic issue and redeem a pledge to supporters and key donors that he first made during the presidential campaign.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke his silence on the issue following the president’s speech, calling it “a historic day” and thanking Mr Trump for his “courageous and just” decision.

“The president’s decision is an important step towards peace, for there is no peace that doesn’t include Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel,” Mr Netanyahu said in a statement.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says Mr Trump had “destroyed any possibility of a two-state [solution]” and was in “total contradiction of agreements signed between Palestinians and Israelis”.

“This step is prejudging, dictating, closing doors for negotiations, and I think President Trump tonight disqualified the United States of America to play any role in any peace process,” Mr Erekat told reporters.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said: “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine. It’s too great for anyone to change its status.”

Mr Trump’s advisers portrayed his decision as an inevitable recognition of reality, and dismissed warnings from the Palestinians and allies including Jordan that it could derail peace talks. The US was not pre-empting future discussions over how Jerusalem could ultimately be divided up, and nor was it questioning ultra-sensitive areas including the area known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, they insisted.

This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do

Donald Trump

Moving the embassy could take years to achieve, and Mr Trump will once again sign another six-month waiver under a congressional law requiring it to be relocated.

Leaders around the world — among them King Abdullah of Jordan and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan — warned the move would have dangerous consequences. The Saudi state news agency quoted an unnamed foreign ministry official as saying the recognition will have “serious implications and will be provocative to all Muslims”.

Theresa May, the UK prime minister, said the move was “unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region.” She called on the Trump administration to “bring forward detailed proposals for an Israel-Palestinian settlement.” The European Union expressed “serious concern” and called on all parties to show calm and restraint.

The status of the divided city is hugely delicate and its fate is one of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israel regards Jerusalem as its undivided capital and claims sovereignty over the whole city. But the international community views East Jerusalem as occupied land and the Palestinians consider it their future capital.

No nation has an embassy in Jerusalem. The international community’s position has long been that Jerusalem’s status should be determined by peace talks. 

In the first comment of dissent from an Israeli official, deputy education minister Meir Porush, an ultra-Orthodox politician, told Army Radio that Mr Trump’s declaration “will cost us dearly and the peace plan he will present will harm us. Better to build in parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem, than have a declaration that has no substance.”

While the decision was commended by pro-Israel lobby groups including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, some analysts predicted it would put parties including Mr Abbas on the defensive while emboldening extremist groups.

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Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian security analyst, said it could enable a recruitment bonanza for jihadist groups, who will use the move as a symbol of aggression against Muslims. "This is dangerous not just for Israel but the Arab region, because Arab leadership will be seen as complicit in this happening. There is a growing conviction among populations that their governments are colluding with Israel."

Mr Trump has promised to broker what he has described as the “ultimate” deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Trump advisers, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, have been hoping to unveil plans for a new peace process as soon as early 2018. 

A Lebanese official, who asked not to be identified, argued the developments were the result of US failure to pressure Mr Abbas to make sufficient concessions for a new peace process. “This is being used as the threat in a massive pressure campaign on Abu Mazen [Abbas]. They were pressuring him to accept a new kind of settlement which he could not accept — they were demanding too much of him.”

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A person with ties to Saudi officials told the Financial Times that Mr Kushner had met in recent months with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, colloquially known as MBS, and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) in an effort to formulate a new peace settlement. They discussed pushing the Palestinians into making deeper concessions, he said, but this had not been connected with the Jerusalem issue.

“That’s not part of the script — that has more to do with the people who gave money to Trump wanting to see results,” he suggested. Several Republican campaign donors, such as Sheldon Adelson, have hardline views on Israel and support settlements in the West Bank, seen as illegal by the international community.

The president dismayed some backers in June when he continued with previous practice by signing a six-month waiver to a congressional requirement demanding that the US embassy be moved. 

This is dangerous not just for Israel but the Arab region, because Arab leadership will be seen as complicit in this happening

Hassan Abu Hanieh, security analyst

“It is clear he doesn’t like exercising these waivers, and he doesn’t like to look like other presidents; he is showing he does it his way,” said Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser at the White House who is now at the Washington Institute. He added that it was critical that Mr Trump frames the decision carefully and makes it clear the decision is not about determining Jerusalem’s final status.

For key US allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, their priority is countering Iran's influence in the region, which they accuse of meddling in Arab states. They have also grown weary of a succession of failed efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and believe peace has little chance with Mr Netanyahu's rightwing government in power.

“There is a sense of resignation in the Gulf — there is nothing much that can be done, and the Gulf needs Trump now more than ever, and of all the problems today Jerusalem is low down the priority list,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political analyst.

Jerusalem, sacred city at the heart of conflict

Few other cities have fuelled such passion and conflict as Jerusalem, writes Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem.

It has been revered for centuries by Christians, Jews and Muslims and its status has been one of the most sensitive issues of failed efforts to resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel regards Jerusalem as its undivided capital, citing the city’s centrality to the Jewish people for 3,000 years. But the Palestinians consider East Jerusalem their future capital.

Under the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine, the city was to remain an International Zone. But after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Jerusalem’s western half fell under Israeli control and its eastern half was controlled by Jordan.

Israel’s parliament relocated to Jerusalem a year later, but most foreign governments have avoided recognising Israeli sovereignty over any part of the city. Foreign embassies are all located in Tel Aviv.

Israel seized control of East Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day war, and annexed it — a move never recognised by the international community.

The Old City is home to the holiest Jewish site, referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount, where two ancient Jewish temples once stood. Muslims refer to that same walled compound as the Noble Sanctuary, the third holiest site in Islam. Today it is home to al-Aqsa mosque and the iconic Dome of the Rock.

The golden Dome of the Rock has become an icon of Palestinian nationalism and a symbol of the city’s Arab and Muslim character. Perceived Israeli infringements on Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem have precipitated three waves of Palestinian violence — in 1996, 2000, and 2015.

For Christians, Jerusalem is the site of Jesus’s crucifixion. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the spot where Christians traditionally believe it took place.

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