Why is Trump’s Decision to Move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem Controversial?

Jerusalem is sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews. Who controls it is one of the most contentious issues in the Middle East peace process. It is Israel’s seat of government, but both the Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their capital.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the central issues to be resolved in any final mideast peace agreement. Because Jerusalem is disputed, foreign  governments, including the U.S., have opted to locate their embassies in Tel Aviv instead. President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. capital to Jerusalem is controversial because it implies that the U.S. is taking a side on the highly volatile question of the holy city’s status.

There is no plausible final peace agreement that does not include at least West Jerusalem under Israeli control. Realistically, it is only East Jerusalem, the territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War which includes the Old City and Jerusalem’s holy sites, that is in dispute. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem does not preclude East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state. As a practical matter Trump’s decision doesn’t change much.  But, it is a highly-charged symbolic issue all the same.

“The bottom line is that Jerusalem is more a symbol than a territorial negotiation,” AEI’s Dani Pletka writes. “[T]this is an emotional choice, more about feelings than about geostrategic considerations, even as it is clear there will be real strategic implications from the choice.”

Some in the Arab world refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s control of any part of Israel, much less Jerusalem. That should be unacceptable to the United States. “Indeed, many of us suspect that intransigence over Israeli sovereignty is latent anti-Semitism masquerading as thoughtful diplomacy,” Pletka says. “Dispensing with that side of the argument seems a good reason to move the Embassy and recognize the capital.”

President Trump, like most Republican Presidential candidates, pledged to relocate the Embassy to Jerusalem.  Now, Trump looks to actually go through with it. It is a long-sought victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that will likely tighten the alliance between the U.S. and Israel. American Jews and evangelical Christians strongly support the move as well.

However, it will surely inflame passions in the Arab world. It is a “symbolic kick in the teeth to Muslims,” writes Nicholas Grossman, an international relations professor at the University of Illinois that may complicate the Middle East peace process, making Palestinians less willing to trust America as an honest broker. Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas warned it would ignite extremism and would have “dangerous consequences” for the peace process. It could make U.S. efforts to build alliances with Arab countries in the fight against ISIS more difficult as well.

All these things may be true. But, moving America’s embassy to Jerusalem also recognizes reality. Jerusalem is Israel’s capitol. President Trump is “dispensing with the mealy-mouthed platitudes of Middle East peacemakers past,” Pletka notes. That might be a good thing.

President Trump hopes for a big, bold peace deal in the Middle East. A jolt of honesty might be what is needed to shake up the moribund peace process. But, whether President Trump knows what he’s doing remains to be seen. The proof will be in the results.

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