Jerusalem: background and thoughts on the future


Trump’s announcement that the US will officially recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, moving their embassy to a location there within three years, has sent shockwaves through the Middle East and the wider world.

In this post, two SOAS experts on the region provide context and analysis.

Dr Yair Wallach, Lecturer in Israeli Studies

Can you give us the background on Jerusalem’s status?

Jerusalem’s peculiar status is something of an anomaly. The international consensus recognises the 1949 Armistice boundaries as Israel’s legitimate borders. These lines include areas that were occupied by Israel during the 1948 war, among them territories designated by the UN to the Palestinian state (such as most of the Galilee) as well as West Jerusalem – the part of the city under Israeli rule between 1948 and 1967 – which was supposed to come under international rule. So in terms of the UN and the international community, the territory of West Jerusalem is a legitimate part of Israel, and yet it was never recognised as capital by any country or the UN.

Despite this fact, in practice Jerusalem does function as a capital, not just for internal Israeli affairs, but also diplomatically. The embassies are all located in Tel Aviv, but diplomats regularly travel to Jerusalem to meet their Israeli counterparts. And foreign leaders visit (West) Jerusalem regularly to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister and President in their mansions. The same international visitors and diplomats would not meet Israeli officials in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, but they do meet them in West Jerusalem.

So if there is international agreement on West Jerusalem being part of Israel, and if in practice diplomats do not boycott it, why is it not recognised as Israel’s capital? To some extent, this is a lingering leftover from the 1948 war, and the fact that Jerusalem’s inclusion in Israel and its declaration as capital was not according to the UN plan; alongside Palestinian refugees, this is one of the issues around 1948 which have never been resolved. But more significantly, after 1967, such formal recognition would have been seen as an endorsement of Israel’s unilateral annexation of occupied East Jerusalem.

What does Trump’s announcement mean for the Israeli-Palestinian relations going forward?

Such recognition now reads as a blow for Palestinian hopes and an endorsement of Israeli policies more generally in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This is a reasonable reading, given that President Trump refused to define Israeli Jerusalem in his statement on 6 December 2017, breaking with a long American tradition of treating East Jerusalem as occupied territory. Israeli settlers certainly view it as a consolidation of their achievement, and they have been celebrating the announcement.


Dr Dina Matar, Centre for Palestine Studies

How will Palestinians and Muslims worldwide view this change in policy from the White House?

While it is difficult to predict the reaction worldwide, it is certain that such a change in policy will trigger various responses considering the symbolic importance of Jerusalem to Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. Protests have started in Gaza and Palestinians have called for protests elsewhere once the announcement is made. There is no doubt that there will be reactions in the Occupied Territories, East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Clearly such a move will be seen as evidence of the US’s lack of concern for Palestinian demands and Palestinian rights, its full support for Israel and its expansionist policies and its disregard of UN resolutions as well as the general feeling of disquiet about lack of action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Already there are some fears in neighbouring countries, such as Jordan, that this step might indicate a dangerous escalation that in real terms legitimises Israeli actions and gives it the green light to continue with its discriminatory policies against, and restrictions, on the Palestinians.

What does this announcement mean for the peace process?

Well, there is no peace process, as such. In other words, negotiations talked of as steps towards peace have not been held for a while. Such a move, however, signals a shift in US foreign policy and makes clear that the current US administration does not regard Palestinian demands as legitimate.

Coming at a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East, this move can be used by Israeli settlers to continue their illegal moves and increase their control over areas of Jerusalem. What is clear is that the move will likely derail any remaining idea that the US can be an honest and impartial broker in the stalled Palestinian-Israeli talks.

Does Trump want peace in the Middle East?

Whether Trump wants peace or not in the Middle East is beside the point and is difficult to answer, not knowing what he is thinking and knowing that he has often taken decisions on impulse, but the fact that such a decision is being contemplated is in itself indicative of a lack of engagement with the situation on the ground. This is worrying.


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