DECEMBER 7, 2017 – Standing before a portrait of George Washington on Wednesday afternoon, Donald Trump told the world that the United States acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In his 11 minute speech, Trump also announced that he had directed the State Department to begin “preparation to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
We greet this as a long-overdue announcement, and given Trump’s track record it might be his most meaningful achievement since taking office.
Few should be surprised of the announcement, as the policy change has been in the making for more than 20 years. In 1995, Congress adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, creating a law that required the US to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 1999. But presidents have waived that requirement every six months since then, wary of antagonizing the Palestinians and the Arab world.
Since then, America’s nebulous position on Israel’s capital has not served to advance peace talks. And with the advent of Saudi Arabia’s new relationship with Israel – the countries now share intelligence – and Egypt’s improved relations with Israel, Trump saw it as an innocuous moment to fulfill a campaign pledge.
To the impartial observer, the American foreign policy decision to dismiss Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is absurd, and also demeaning. Jerusalem is mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible; it is part of the Talmud, and King David wrote passionately in his book of psalms about his capital city. Jews still face east toward Jerusalem during prayer, and the Western Wall is all that remains of the site where the two holy temples were built.
Today, Jerusalem is the center of political and spiritual life in Israel. Israel’s Knesset is in Jerusalem, and its Supreme Court is located in Givat Ram in Jerusalem. The country’s flagship university, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is on Mount Scopus. And its holiest site, the Western Wall, is in the city’s Old City.
Some may view Trump’s announcement as just another obstacle to peace. With the constant attempts to delegitimize Israel’s existence by pro-Palestinian, and other anti-Israel groups, the acknowledgement may come as a shock to some.
But the new US policy signals a reality check. In his speech, Trump also endorsed the notion of a two-state solution, and did not take a position on “the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.” It is widely accepted that if a peace deal is reached, the Palestinians will declare East Jerusalem their capital. And if that occurs, the United States will likely be the first country to recognize that status.