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The long unthinkable—a U.S. president recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—has happened, and without the city or the Middle East imploding.
Following President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 speech announcing his intent to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, protests broke out with some violence, but nothing like a new intifada with widespread casualties that pundits predicted and some Muslim leaders have worked for a week now to incite.
At Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, where most Muslim residents enter the Old City, recent visitors say more reporters are stationed there than protesters.
“As news, it’s remarkably unremarkable,” said Robert Nicholson, executive director of Philos Project, a New York-based group promoting Christian engagement in the Middle East. “The reality is, it’s hard not to see Jerusalem as the historic capital of the Jewish people.”
Beyond the immediate fallout, though, the move is revealing a dramatic realignment in the Middle East and prompting questions for Trump’s Christian supporters. Many of them champion Israel but in more recent years also have advocated for the region’s threatened Christian population, which has been subjected to genocide under ISIS in neighboring Syria and Iraq.
Concerns, too, remain over how the move will affect U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world. At a December gathering in Istanbul of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Trump’s Dec. 6 decision a “crime” and said the United States wasn’t qualified as a mediator in the peace process “from now on.” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on OIC members to “recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state under occupation.”
Muslim opposition comes at a critical moment but long has been expected. Trump pledged to make the embassy move during his campaign and early on in his presidency.
It’s the president’s timing that caught many by surprise. Those familiar with the peace process expected such an announcement to be part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, not to precede one. U.S. diplomats consider neutrality essential to brokering such an accord. Arab leaders hoped such an announcement would be part of an anticipated two-state arrangement, with West Jerusalem the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state.
Seeing Jerusalem as not the capital of Israel is to many a recent invention. Under the 1947 plan that created modern Israel, the United Nations designated the city a corpus separatum, an international city to be administered by the UN for 10 years. Arab nations invaded Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, setting up the division that put Jordanians in control of East Jerusalem. Israel seized that sector in the 1967 Six-Day War, consolidating its control under a complex regime that leaves Jordan the custodian of Christian and Muslim holy sites in the Old City.
Today Palestinians pass through checkpoints to enter the city, and UN resolutions persistently denounce Israeli control. Yet as Jerusalem has grown and blossomed economically, Israel’s control is not without benefits to Palestinians: The number of Palestinians working in the city has more than doubled in recent years, and wages for Palestinians are many times more than average wages in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank.
For these and other reasons, pursuing a peace process has taken a back seat to other security issues across the region, like defeating ISIS and containing Iran. Christian groups, though, have kept the status of Jerusalem atop their agenda.
“It’s been the No. 2 issue for evangelicals after U.S. judicial appointments,” said Johnny Moore, the de facto spokesman for an unofficial group of evangelical advisers who meet regularly with senior White House advisers, the president, and Vice President Mike Pence.
Moore was part of a delegation of U.S. evangelical leaders who visited the region in November, and he toured Israel this month as part of a Gulf state interfaith delegation organized by the California-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. He pointed out that under a 1995 law the United States agreed to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but every president has signed six-month waivers under that law to postpone it.
“We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past. Old challenges demand new approaches.”
“What’s unique about President Trump is that he is going to do it,” Moore told me. “From my perspective Jerusalem has been a sticking point in negotiations, and this sets it aside, making a clearer path toward a more substantive conversation toward peace.”
Yet it’s a move that’s alienated Christian leaders in the Middle East—and at a critical moment when many of their congregants are displaced or face attacks. Coptic Pope Tawadros II announced he would not meet with Pence during the vice president’s upcoming trip to the Middle East (scheduled for late December) due to the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Church leaders in Bethlehem, too, say they may boycott Pence’s visit. Jerusalem’s own leading Christian clergy in a Dec. 6 letter to Trump called on him to continue to recognize the international status of the city.
The division appears likely to make it harder for the United States to work with Christian leaders in the region, and at a time when Pence is positioning the administration to spearhead post-ISIS aid efforts.
“It’s definitely a hiccup,” said Nicholson.
Yet many of these leaders, too, are often like hostages as they serve in countries under Islamic rulers. “They are like the battered wives when they talk on this issue, telling you how great their husband is,” said Nicholson. “We have to look beyond the makeup covering up their bruises to see what’s really going on, because in a lot of ways they are the greatest casualties in this whole thing. Muslims see the Christians as infidels, and Jews see them as Arabs.”
Working to bridge the gap between Western Christian advocacy groups and Eastern Christians is important, say Nicholson and others. At the same time, the Trump administration needs pressure to take an active role in rebuilding Christian communities, especially with the No. 2 priority settled.
Arab Muslim leaders also have work to do. As President Trump in his Dec. 6 speech noted: “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past. Old challenges demand new approaches.”
The U.S. Embassy move, in fact, appears to be part of a wider realignment. Israel and its Arab neighbors have a looming mutual interest: opposing Iran.
Tehran’s ayatollahs long have threatened to wipe Israel off the map and are intent to carve a zone of influence across Iraq to the Mediterranean, with strategic alliances with Syria’s Assad regime and Lebanon’s Hezbollah power brokers. Under those threats at its borders, Israel is forging a first-ever alliance with Saudi Arabia, launched in many ways when Trump on his first trip abroad as president flew from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to Tel Aviv.
Trump’s heightened alliance with Saudi Arabia dovetails with Israel’s quest for cooperation with the Arab state, and many believe making the U.S. Embassy move at this time is part of a quid pro quo—an important boost to Israel as it begins intelligence sharing and other alliances with the region’s Sunni powers.
At the Istanbul summit of Islamic leaders, when Palestinian President Abbas and Turkish and Iranian heads of state demanded opposition to Trump’s move, notable others were missing: Leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates did not attend the gathering. In fact, only 18 heads of state from the 57-member OIC were on hand.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman seemed to make a point by meeting with his own Shura Council during the OIC meeting and calling for “a political solution” to include the Palestinians’ “right to establish their independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
As Jerusalem Post op-ed editor Seth Frantzman pointed out, the reference to “East Jerusalem” is a concession, in effect recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In this part of the world, that’s a start.
(This story has been updated to correct the date of the vice president's scheduled trip to the Middle East.)