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Can Trump’s Jerusalem speech strengthen the two-state solution?

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With the White House confirming that Trump will recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and Arab states warning of violence, there is a way that Trump can use the announcement to strengthen the paradigm of two states for two peoples.

For Israel, gaining recognition of Jerusalem as its capital is symbolically important. The city hosts the seat of its Knesset and Supreme Court as well as the Western Wall and Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest sites. For the Palestinians – who reject Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of the city – recognition is an anathema. Yet part of the challenge in considering non-zero sum policies in the city relate to the shifting borders of Jerusalem over the last 70 years.

Jerusalem’s fluctuating borders

As part of the 1947 UN partition plan, the area of Jerusalem – which reached southwards to Bethlehem and incorporated 187 square kilometres – was intended to be an internationalised corpus separatum.

The armistice agreements following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence left Israel controlling the western part of the City (38 square kilometres), with Jordan having captured the eastern part (6 square kilometres) including the Old City and so-called Holy Basin (which comprises 2 square kilometres). The international community didn’t recognise this new reality and the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that Jerusalem “should be accorded special and separate treatment from the rest of Palestine.”

In 1967, control over Jerusalem and the city’s borders changed again with Israel capturing east Jerusalem and the West Bank (as well as Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights) and subsequently expanding the municipal borders of Jerusalem to not only include the area of former Jordanian east Jerusalem, but an additional 22 Arab villages comprising 64 square kilometres to the east. Post 1967 municipal Jerusalem then included the Western part, the Eastern part, and the new areas further to the east that had never historically been considered part of the city – in total 108 square kilometres.

In 1993, the city’s borders expanded again, this time further westward, to include an additional 15 square kilometres. Municipal Jerusalem today comprises 123 square kilometres.

And while the international community never recognised Israeli control over the eastern part of the city, its control over the Western part has become de-facto accepted.

What do Trump and the Arab world mean when they say Jerusalem?

When Trump talks about moving the embassy to Jerusalem or recognising the city as Israel’s capital, and when the Arab world warn about the dangers of such a move, what Jerusalem are they talking about (and is it the same Jerusalem?)

Is it the western part of the city, where Palestinians have no territorial claims and which the international community recognise as sovereign Israel?

Is it the entire municipal area which includes areas the international community see as occupied, the Palestinians claim as their future capital, and Israel calls an eternal, indivisible part of its capital?

Or is it the Old City and Holy Basin – a deeply emotive place that goes to the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Towards ‘Constructive Specifity’

One relevant concept in these discussions was recently presented at a Fathom Forum by Einat Wilf. Wilf, a former Labour party MK, calls for the international community to take positions of “constructive specifity” (rather than constructive ambiguity) on final status issues, and argues that ‘Jerusalem’ actually comprises four different components – only one of which need remain unresolved: The first is the Jewish neighbourhoods in western Jerusalem, which the world should be “very clear that there is no question about its status,” and “moving western embassies to this part of Jerusalem should not be a big deal.” The second includes the Jewish neighbourhoods built east of the 1967 line which, while considered part of occupied territory, “should be annexed to Israel in a final status in a way that would be minimalistic” (in line with previous peace negotiations in which a consensus has formed around most – although the Palestinians argue not all – the Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem becoming part of Israel following land swaps). The third component are those “Arab villages which were not part of Jordanian East Jerusalem but were annexed to Jerusalem after 1968” on which Wilf argues “there is no question that these areas belong to the future Arab state and the world should be very clear that they do not recognise those areas as part of Israel and that they should not be part of united Jerusalem.”

The only area within the current borders of municipal Jerusalem on which there is controversy is the Old City / Holy Basin on which Wilf suggests the status quo should continue, with an emphasis on ensuring access to the religious places until a decision is made on its final status. She concludes that “the status of everything else [in Jerusalem] can already be specified, and we would be in a much better position to agree on the status of the Old City if we do not let the ambiguity of that part spill over into the whole.

Moving the embassy within a two state framework

With talk of an upcoming Trump peace plan sometime in 2018 that requires regional buy in, and with Arab and Western capitals warning about the dire consequences of moving the embassy – or announcing an Administration position on Jerusalem – many would argue that this is an inopportune time for any decision.

But framing an Administration position around ‘constructive specifity’ could actually be useful. And despite the regional warnings of violence, Trump could potentially carry out the embassy move as part of a package that would positively advance a reality of two states for two peoples. Such a package could include recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and making a statement recognising Palestinian rights and future sovereignty in the eastern part, adding that the specifics will need to negotiated by the two sides.

One year into office, the inner machinations and decision making processes of the administration remain a mystery. Yet a touted ‘compromise’ option in which Trump signs the waiver yet announces American recognition of ‘Jerusalem’ – without any further explanation or ‘specifity’ – might actually be the worst of both worlds. It would leave the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, and undermine Palestinian belief in the US as an honest broker.

There is potentially a constructive way through the minefield that is Jerusalem’s status. But as Israel celebrates, the Palestinians fume, and Trump revels in theatrics, it looks unlikely to be taken.

Calev Ben-Dor is BICOM’s Director of Research.