Capital Offense

AP Photo/Eitan Hess-Ashkenazi, File

An Israeli border policemen guards the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv as other Israelis line up for U.S. visas. 

On December 6, President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced plans to move the U.S. embassy there. In his January 2017 column, Gershom Gorenberg outlined the diplomatic and national security ramifications for Israel and the U.S. that could follow such a move. 

Somewhere around 3 a.m. on the Saturday after next, America's newly inaugurated chief insomniac is likely to tweet, “Moved U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Israel's capital. Huge!”

Yes. It will be a huge mistake.

Among experts, the most optimistic estimation is that the diplomatic and security impact on Israel and the United States will be merely awful, not apocalyptic. I do not take comfort even from such “upbeat” assessments, perhaps because I live a few hundred meters from the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem—which, with the switch of a sign, will become the embassy, and quite possibly the focus for violent protests.

Mr. Trump, I'd like to tell him, if I could hold his attention for long enough, if you want to mess with the sanity of a city, please pick a different one, in your own country. Mine has enough troubles.

Now, to acknowledge the obvious: Jerusalem is, in fact, Israel's capital. It's where the parliament, the prime minister's residence and the supreme court are located. Israel doesn't put its embassy to the United States in, say, Philadelphia. Why shouldn't America recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital?

The answer to this is another question: Precisely which Jerusalem does the Trump regime intend to recognize as Israel's capital?

I can almost hear someone out there responding: Don't be silly. The Jerusalem in the mountains between the Mediterranean and the northern tip of the Dead Sea, the one where Jews say Solomon built his Temple, Christians say Jesus was crucified, and Muslims say Muhammad visited on his night journey, the Jerusalem from which you could slouch to Bethlehem in an hour. You know where it is on the map.

Sorry. In Jerusalem, things are never that simple. It makes a great difference what map you use. The choice can be explosive. With a fair degree of confidence, we can assume that the members of the U.S. Congress who passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 picked the wrong cartographer, and that Donald Trump hasn't taken the time to care.

So let's talk maps.

Map No. 1 was drawn in 1947 when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The thrice-holy city was assigned to neither. It was to become a “corpus separatum” under UN rule. The principles of self-determination and of government by the governed—the people who actually lived in a real city of stone, streets, and exhaust—were put aside in favor of the religious attachments of people around the world for whom the city is a myth, a place halfway to heaven. Then again, mythic attachments are the only wealth Jerusalem has ever produced, and they are what drive conflict over the city.

Rather than peaceful partition, the UN resolution set off the first and most brutal Arab-Israeli war. It produced Map No. 2.

In April 1949, Israel and Jordan signed an armistice. The armistice lines in Jerusalem followed the forward positions of the two armies. The new map left the west side of the city under Israeli rule and the east under Jordan. In some places, open space had separated the armies. It became no-man's land. The armistice line was usually drawn in green. 

Over time the United States, like most countries, treated the Green Line as the border of Israel's sovereign territory. Except in Jerusalem: In 1949, America supported UN Resolution 194 on Arab-Israel peace, which was to include an “international regime” in the city. Israel established its capital in West Jerusalem, but the United States officially regarded the city as being under de facto—but not de jure—Israeli rule. It put its embassy in Tel Aviv. The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem had an office on each side of the city. It did not report to the embassy.

In retrospect, it would have been more consistent for Washington to abandon the last scrap of the UN partition map and acknowledge Israeli sovereignty in West Jerusalem. But any chance of this happening evaporated after Israel conquered East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank in early June 1967.

The morning after the war, the U.S. consul-general happily noticed that Israeli “workmen with heavy equipment” were tearing down concrete walls dividing the city. “This will be a great help to us” in traveling between the East and West Jerusalem consulor offices, he cabled the State Department. His joy faded when he learned that Israel was apparently employing earth-moving machines that “had been used prior to hostilities by the American contractors” renovating East Jerusalem's Jordanian airport.

In the long novel of history, this is foreshadowing of pure literary beauty: the use of, er, borrowed bulldozers to demolish the walls sundering a city. From one angle, theft; from another, liberation.

Two weeks later, violating international law against acquiring territory by conquest, Israel annexed the east city and a swathe of land around it, and announced that Jerusalem was unified. From one angle, liberation; from another, theft. President Lyndon Johnson's press office released a statement saying that the United States did not recognize “unilateral actions ... as governing the international status of Jerusalem.” Israel ignored this and all other protests, moved some of its government offices to the east side, and built new Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line. In messy everyday life, Arab Jerusalem is the first-class cabin of the occupation. The Arab and Jewish cities are both entangled and disunited.

The annexation created Map No. 3, which shows the city boundary as drawn by Israel. It's this map that has deterred every U.S. president since 1967 from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. To do so would mean abandoning the policy that Jerusalem's final status will be determined in negotiations. Instead, America would be ratifying the annexation. It would be signing off on Map No. 3, and acceding to Israeli sovereignty over the holy sites, including Al-Aqsa Mosque. It would be repudiating everything it has ever said about a negotiated peace solution.

Not only that, Israel itself agreed in the Oslo Accord of 1993 “that the status of Jerusalem would be subject to final status negotiations,” as Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, pointed out to me this week. “And in the Jordan-Israel peace treaty [of 1994], there's a provision for Jordan's role in a negotiation over the status of the holy places.” In my reading, that provision implies acceptance that Israelis and Palestinians can't decide the fate of Jerusalem's sacred spaces on their own.

Congress ignored all this when it passed the Embassy Act in 1995. The law not only mandates moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, it makes quite clear which Jerusalem: “the united city administered by Israel.” That is, Congress signed off on Map No. 3. It also included a provision allowing the president to sign a waiver every six months, delaying the embassy move on the basis of national security. With shameless cynicism, the lawmakers sought the domestic political profit for shifting the embassy, while leaving it to the president to be the responsible adult.

The age of the responsible adult ends on January 19.

In theory, a president could accompany the move with a declaration that the United States recognizes Israeli sovereignty only in West Jerusalem, within the Green Line. There's little chance this would soften the international reaction when, as Kurtzer says, “Israel every day makes the proclamation of the eternal, unified, and so forth [Jerusalem].”

And in the impossibly unlikely scenario where Donald Trump tried to take such care, the embassy location would spoil it. Several years ago, the United States built a large new consulate in Jerusalem. City planning officials have said that it's intended to be the embassy, if and when America makes the move. A change of sign is all that's needed. In 2014, the U.S. also bought the neighboring plot, the site of the Diplomat Hotel, now a senior citizens' home.

As I mentioned, the new consulate is near my home. I live inside the Green Line. The consulate grounds, on the other hand, straddle the line. Part is in the pre-1967 no-man's land. The Diplomat plot is mostly or entirely in no-man's land.

If the consulate was planned to serve as an embassy—perhaps to Palestine as well as Israel—after peace, the location would be nicely symbolic. If turned into an embassy today, it will be a declaration in concrete that the United States accepts de jure Israeli rule beyond the Green Line. In turn, that's recognition of Israel sovereignty over the Islamic and Christian holy sites.

A quibble could be made: After the 1949 armistice, Israel and Jordan reached an arrangement to divide use of no-man's land in southern Jerusalem. The consulate is in the part Israel controlled, so a U.S. administration could claim that it isn't in occupied territory. But the legal status of the post-armistice arrangement is fuzzy, and the division is very rarely marked on maps. Nuances won't soften international outrage. Anyone who Googles the consulate location will find the Green Line (albeit marked in gray) cutting through it.

If the embassy is moved, “The Palestinian Authority is certain to boycott the U.S. administration,” says Professor Samir Awad, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank and an expert on relations with America. “It will jeopardize relations with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world, and ... in Latin America.” Awad cautiously estimates that a new Palestinian uprising is unlikely, but “violence will escalate. Whatever exists now will double.”

Nor will the United States be immune, in Kurtzer's assessment. “The Muslim community in Islamabad might just take aim at the American Embassy, or in Jakarta or somewhere else. ... The best case scenario is that the world doesn't fall apart, it just gets ruined in significant ways.”

If Trump asks for briefing papers, if he meets with policy professionals, if he even talks to the men he has chosen to be the secretaries of defense and state, he'll hear that moving the embassy will cause a blow-up. We live wildly unpredictable times, so it's even possible that Trump will take advice. It seems, though, that he likes defying advice and making things blow up. But for the sake of all that's holy, Mr. Trump, things blow up in Jerusalem too often. Please go cause trouble somewhere else. 

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