Editor’s Note: Daniel B. Shapiro served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council in the Obama Administration. He is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
As the United States prepares to formally transfer its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, lots of concern has been expressed about the decision and its impact on prospects for peace.
It doesn’t help that the ceremony will take place in the midst of increasingly violent protests in Gaza, the Palestinians’ marking of the “Nakba” – their national tragedy of dispossession of their land when Israel was established – and the beginning of Ramadan.
But what are the actual implications of this decision?
I will take a contrarian view: the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem can actually help advance an end to the conflict.
A brief history lesson might help clarify my reasoning.
Why hasn’t the US ever recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? Some people date it to the controversy that arose in 1967, when Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the Six-Day War and unified the city, describing it as a US protest against the Israeli “occupation” of East Jerusalem. That’s wrong.
The truth is that US policy on Jerusalem derives from events 20 years earlier, when the United Nations passed the Partition Plan for Palestine in November 1947. In recognition of the competing and overlapping claims of two peoples, the plan called for the establishment of two states – a Jewish state and an Arab state – and drew a patchwork map to designate each state’s territory.
But Jerusalem, holy to three faiths and claimed by both sides, was the most sensitive issue of all. So the UN punted. It treated Jerusalem as a separate body — a corpus separatum — and drew a circle around it to indicate that the city did not belong to either state.
Israel’s establishment was rejected by Arab states and the Arab population in Palestine.
After Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-49, Israel controlled West Jerusalem, while Jordan retained the East, along with the West Bank. Yet no new Arab state had come into being.
Under what still seemed to be temporary circumstances regarding Jerusalem, the international community looked at the accepted governing document about the city — the Partition Plan map — and threw up its hands. The issue was too hard to settle, so virtually every country put off making any changes to its policy until Jerusalem’s status could be resolved through negotiations. The US was among them.
That situation remained unchanged through multiple peace initiatives over many decades. It did not change in 1967 when Israel unified the city, and despite Israeli claims that an undivided Jerusalem will always be Israel’s. And it did not change — in fact, it was reinforced — in 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed and Israel and the Palestinians agreed that Jerusalem would be put on the table as an issue to be addressed in final status negotiations.
When the US Congress, in 1995, advanced legislation that would require the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the Clinton Administration sought a waiver authority, allowing the President to delay the move by six months at a time.
That led to regular delays, enacted by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump to avoid igniting perhaps the most sensitive issue in the conflict, likely dooming the chances for productive negotiations.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem had always been Israel’s capital, and we have always treated it functionally, if not formally, as such. When I served as the US Ambassador at our embassy in Tel Aviv, nearly every day I would be driven to Jerusalem to conduct affairs of state with the Israeli government at the Prime Minister’s office, the Foreign Ministry, and the Knesset.
President Obama stayed at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem when he visited Israel in 2013. Secretaries of State have for decades based their regional diplomacy out of Jerusalem.
So when President Trump announced that the embassy would be relocated, he was – as he put it – recognizing a reality, and, in a sense, correcting a long-held historical anachronism.
So the shattering of this taboo is useful in its own right. But it also helps return the search for a resolution to this conflict to its origins. The UN understood in 1947 that the conflict required the creation of two states, which logically means Jews and Arab must share the land. That is still true today (although clearly not according to the same map from 1947).
The same logic dictates that the two states share the city they both claim and revere: Jerusalem.
So moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem will help strengthen the principle that Israel’s claim to the city, born of centuries of Jewish connection to the city, is legitimate and must be recognized. It probably should have been long ago.
What will help complete the picture is similar clarity by the US that the Palestinians, with their own historical and religious ties, have a valid claim to East Jerusalem.
Trump has signaled this step by saying that, despite US recognition, the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty will only be determined in negotiations. No doubt, that will include Israel retaining control over key holy sites, like the Western Wall, and creative arrangements elsewhere.
But East Jerusalem has many Arab neighborhoods where few Israelis enter, and a negotiated boundary to include a sovereign Palestinian capital in a unified city – as part of a broader agreement – is both reasonable and doable.
There are growing signs of this reality being recognized. The US Middle East team is reportedly eyeing four Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as the basis of a Palestinian capital there. Official Israeli policy opposing sharing the city has not changed, yet more Israeli leaders, even on the right, are daring to experiment with this question, long a third rail in Israeli politics. And as Israel encourages other countries to follow the US’s lead, they will discover that these embassies, no surprise, will be located exclusively in West Jerusalem.
The conflict is not anywhere close to a resolution, for myriad reasons. But I am optimistic that the overdue step of locating the US Embassy in Jerusalem can actually bring closer the day when the issue long deemed the hardest in the conflict to solve may in fact become the most obvious. And that would only advance the cause of achieving a conflict-ending deal.