“ALL of us are saying ‘Hey, United States, we don’t think this is a very good idea’,” said Jordan’s King Abdullah II in 2002, when it became clear that President George W. Bush was going to invade Iraq. But Bush didn’t listen, and it turned out to be an extremely bad idea.
This time, with President Donald J. Trump announcing that the United States will recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there, King Abdullah simply sounded resigned: “The adoption of this resolution will have serious implications for security and stability in the Middle East.”
He knows there’s no point in protesting, even if it ends up meaning that Jordan has to break diplomatic relations with Israel. Trump is simply keeping a campaign promise he made in order to win the votes of American Jews and evangelicals, and he neither knows or cares about the implications of his decision for the Middle East.
Neither does he care that he is abandoning an American policy that has endured for seven decades and is still observed by every other country with an embassy in Israel. They are all down on the coast, in Tel Aviv, because the final status of Jerusalem in international law is still to be determined.
It’s still up in the air because the 1947 United Nations resolution that recommended the creation of independent Jewish and Arab states in Palestine also put Jerusalem under a separate Special International Regime, since it is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
That never happened, because the UN resolution triggered a war that left Jerusalem divided between Israel and what remained of Arab Palestine (all of which was promptly annexed by Jordan and Egypt). And since the Old City, the heart of Jerusalem, was now part of Jordan and exclusively Arab in population, all the embassies stayed in Tel Aviv.
In the 1967 war Israel conquered the eastern, Arab-majority part of Jerusalem (and all the rest of Palestine too), and in 1980 it declared that the entire ‘reunited’ city would be Israel’s eternal capital. The embassies still didn’t move, however, because Israel had no more right to annex East Jerusalem in 1980 than Jordan did in 1948. International law no longer allows borders to be moved by force.
Nothing has changed since then. There are 88 foreign embassies in Tel Aviv, and not one in Jerusalem. This is inconvenient, since most Israeli government offices are up in Jerusalem, but diplomats and foreign ministries generally take international law quite seriously. They’d gladly move if Jerusalem were internationally recognised as Israel’s capital, but it is not.
This view of things is enshrined in the Oslo accords of 1993, a US-sponsored pact that has defined the Arab-Israeli ‘peace process’ for the past quarter-century. It leaves the final status of Jerusalem to be decided by negotiations between the two parties – although, significantly, Israel did not cancel its 1980 annexation of Arab Jerusalem when it signed the accord.
Now, in fact, everybody knows that Israel has no intention of ever giving up Jerusalem as its capital, and that it is too strong for any combination of Arab countries to force it to do so. Everybody realises (or should realise) that the ‘peace process’ has actually been dead for at least a decade, and that there is currently no possibility of resurrecting it. So this whole fuss is just about symbolism – but symbols matter.
Everybody goes on pretending that there is a ‘peace process’, just as they pretend that the status of Jerusalem is still unsettled and that the United States is neutral between Israel and the Palestinans, because these fictions allow the Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, to pretend they have not lost the struggle decisively. But they have, at least for this generation.
What Trump is doing now, for no better reason than to keep some American voters happy, is rubbing the Arabs’ noses in their defeat. Being normal human beings, they will respond by re-opening the struggle – not to the point where they risk being destroyed by Israel, but at least enough to save face and do a lot of damage.
Some Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel (and even some other Muslim countries) will feel compelled to downgrade them or cut ties completely. Jordan and Egypt, which actually have peace treaties with Israel, may be forced to reconsider them. The Palestinians may feel obliged to launch a third intifada, just to show that somehow they are still in the game. It won’t be Armageddon, but it could get quite ugly.
There is one important group of pro-Trump voters, however, who would be delighted if it did turn into a real war: white evangelical Christians, or at least the ‘dispensationalists’ amongst them. Armageddon is what the Bible prophesies, in their reading of it, and they eagerly await the prophecy’s fulfilment.