Why is Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem so Controversial?

On December 6, President Trump announced the plans of the United States to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. This sparked an uproar in the international community, leading to a UN vote declaring the move to be in violation of international law.

Well, from what we know about President Trump, this didn’t move him a bit. He even instructed Nikki Hailey to take down the names of the countries who voted against   the United States’ decision at the UN General Assembly, threatening to withdraw their aid.

So, if you are new to the party and you don’t understand what the fuss is all about, this guide should get you up to speed on why the US embassy move is so controversial.

Some Historical Background

Jerusalem is a city sacred to the three Abrahamic faiths. It contains the holiest site in Judaism, some holy sites in Islam, and some sacred sites in Christendom. As a result, Palestine and Israel claim Jerusalem as their capital.

The issue started way back in 1947 when the United Nations partitioned Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. Due to the sensitive nature of Jerusalem, it was to have a special international status and not belong to any of the states until a settlement could be reached.

However, things were quite different on the ground. With the declaration of Israeli independence in 1948, there was fighting between Israel, Palestine, and a handful of its Arab neighbors. In the fallout of the War, Israel occupied the Western part of Jerusalem while Jordan controlled the Eastern part of the City.

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Things remained that way until the Six day war in 1967 when Israel took the remaining part of Jerusalem from Jordan. It has remained under Israeli control ever since.

In July 1980, Israel passed a legislation that declared Jerusalem as its united and eternal capital. However, the international community sees this as an illegal act and does not recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

So, there haven’t been any embassies in Jerusalem?

Well, before 1980, there were a couple of embassies in Jerusalem, including that of the Netherlands and Costa Rica. But in 2006 Costa Rica and El Salvador were the last countries to move their embassies from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

However, some countries including the US, have consulates in Jerusalem. While the US consulate is in the Western part of Jerusalem, countries like France and the UK have their consulates in the Eastern part of the city.

What was the Official Position of the United States?

In 1995 the United States Congress passed a law requiring that the US recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and instructing the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Proponents for this argued that since Jerusalem was already the de facto capital of Israel, it should be officially recognized as such.

Despite this, successive US Presidents have used the Presidential waiver and have chosen not to carry this out. The waiver is exercised at six month intervals and President Trump’s last waiver period expired on December 1. He announced his decision on December 6.

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What has Trump Done so Far?

Donald Trump made the announcement to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and announced plans to begin preparations for the move.

As expected, this sparked international uproar and there was a UN vote to decide the propriety of Trump’s decision. President Trump instructed Nikki Hailey to take down the names of countries that vote against the US decision, threatening to withdraw their aid.

In the end, 137 countries voted while 35 abstained. The results showed 9 countries voting in support of the President Trump’s decision while 128 overwhelmingly voted against the decision. The countries that voted in favor of Trump, excluding the US and Israel, were Togo, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands, Guatemala and Honduras

It is unclear if President Trump has started taking actions against the countries that voted against his decision.

Meanwhile, he got a boost when Guatemala announced on Christmas Eve that it will also be moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

What are the Options Open to Trump?

In 1989 the Israeli government leased a piece of land in Jerusalem to the US for 99 years at $1 per year. The Israeli government hopes that will be the new site for the US embassy.

Now, President Trump has two major options. He could either use the piece of land leased to him, or he could turn the current US consulate into the US embassy.

Alternatively, he could leave the US embassy in Tel Aviv and make the ambassador carry out his day to day activities in Jerusalem.

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Why are the Israelis happy about Trump’s move?

The Israeli government is very delighted about Trump’s announcement. For one, it has since recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, so with the US intending to do so, it only bolsters their position.

Also, Israeli right-wingers led by Benjamin Netanyahu are happy as this deals a big blow to the peace process between Israel and Palestine. They would very much like to maintain the current status between Israel and Palestine.

What about the Arabs and Palestinians?

The Arabs and Palestinians are very angry at Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The Arab league released a statement stating that Donald Trump’s move signals that the US is not an impartial party in the Palestinian peace process.

Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. They hope it will be the crown jewel in a future peace agreement. However, with Donald Trump’s decision, this dream seems to have been shattered. Leading to a lot of violent protests in the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

Not that it makes much difference to Palestinians on the ground. For them, Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital since its occupation in 1967. Donald Trump’s decision just evaporated any tiny sliver of hope they might be harboring.