Why U.S. Embassy Move to Jerusalem Fuels So Much Fury: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- What’s the capital of Israel? Israelis say it’s Jerusalem, and indeed the prime minister’s office is there, as well as the parliament, the highest court and most government ministries. But other countries consider the city disputed territory, subject to negotiation with the Palestinians. No major power recognized Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem until U.S. President Donald Trump did so on Dec. 6. World leaders from the Vatican to Tehran denounced the U.S. position. As the U.S. prepared to officially relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Israeli Independence Day, May 14, clashes escalated between Israeli troops and Palestinians engaged in a weeks-long protest in the Gaza Strip.

1. What’s so special about Jerusalem? 

It’s sacred to followers of the three major monotheistic religions. It is home to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in the world for Jews, who come from around the world to pray at the Western Wall, the last remaining supporting wall of the biblical temple. Muslims revere the same plateau as the Noble Sanctuary, where the Al-Aqsa mosque stands as the third-holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Not far away in Jerusalem’s Old City is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians revere as the site of Jesus’s tomb. When the United Nations voted in 1947 to divide British-ruled Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, it didn’t want either side controlling Jerusalem, due to its religious resonance. Instead, it set aside the city as an international zone to be administered by a UN council of trustees.

2. So why does Israel control it?

Arab states rejected the UN partition plan for Palestine and launched a war against the fledgling Jewish state. The war left Israel in control of west Jerusalem, where the bulk of the Jewish population lived, and Jordan in control of the mostly Arab eastern side, containing the holiest sites. In 1967, Israel captured east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War and formally annexed those portions of the city to form one municipality under Israeli law. In 1980, its parliament passed a law declaring "complete and united" Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. Most nations rejected the move. The only two that complied, Costa Rica and El Salvador, eventually moved their diplomatic posts to Tel Aviv, where all the other embassies are located, under pressure from Arab states.

3. Were the Gaza protests all about Jerusalem?

Not exactly. They were designed to call attention to the demand to allow Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes. The protests were to culminate on May 15, the day Palestinians mark as the "Nakba," or disaster. It’s the day after Israel declared independence in 1948, leading to a war in which some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from or fled their homes as the new state was established. Trump chose Israel’s Independence Day to open the embassy, providing an additional flashpoint. Palestinians see the U.S. move as taking sides in one of the knottiest issues in peace talks since the first Israeli-Palestinian accord, the 1993 Oslo agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government says Jerusalem will remain the “undivided and eternal capital” of the Jewish people. Palestinians insist the city must be their capital as well.

4. Does anyone still envision an international zone?

Not really. Vatican officials have periodically called for an "internationally guaranteed special statute" for Jerusalem. However, the U.S., Russia, European Union and United Nations, acting collectively to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians, have embraced the position that it’s up to the two sides to negotiate the city’s status. Trump clarified after recognizing that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital that the U.S. takes no position on "the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”

5. What have other U.S. presidents done?

Like Trump before Dec. 6, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush vowed as candidates to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem but backed away once in office amid warnings that the move could spark Arab violence or scuttle peace talks. The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1995 requiring that the embassy be moved by 1999, but the legislation included a provision allowing the president to waive the move for six months in the interest of national security -- and that’s what has happened ever since. Before leaving the White House, Barack Obama signed the waiver for a last time on Dec. 1, 2016. Trump renewed it for six months on June 1 and again in December -- even after recognizing the city as Israel’s capital.

6. What does moving the embassy entail?

Not much, to start. When Trump was presented with a $400 million plan for a new embassy in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, he said $400,000 was as much as he was willing to spend. So the diplomatic outpost that was designated the U.S. embassy May 14 is essentially the existing U.S. consular facility built on that site in 2010, with new placards and upgraded security. At first it will provide office space for Ambassador David Friedman and his closest staff while most operations are still handled in Tel Aviv, 70 kilometers to the west. Building a new embassy that houses all personnel and complies with State Department requirements for state-of the-art security will take several years -- and carry the nearly half-billion-dollar price tag that Trump originally rejected.

7. Will other nations follow the U.S. lead?

For now, only a few. Paraguay and Guatemala say they will move their embassies to Jerusalem in the coming weeks, and the president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, is trying to get his nation to do the same.

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