Why moving the US embassy to ancient city is so controversial

Raf Sanchez

Donald Trump has announced that the US is recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will soon move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Why is that a big deal?

The short answer is that the decision could lead to violent protests in Jerusalem and around the Muslim world, damage US relations with Islamic countries to whom Jerusalem is important, and derail Mr Trump’s hopes of brokering peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

What is the backstory?

Jerusalem is incredibly sensitive for both political and religious reasons.

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has always controlled the western half of Jerusalem. In 1967 it occupied the eastern half and today it claims the entire city as its “eternal and undivided” capital. No western country, including the US, has ever recognised that claim nor recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in any form.

The Palestinians say there can be no peace agreement unless they are able to have east Jerusalem as the capital of an independent state of Palestine.

In religious terms, the city is home to Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites.

What was the US position up until now?

The US has always refused to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The US Congress passed a law in 1995 which said that the president must move the US embassy to Jerusalem in a sign of solidarity with Israel. But the law included a get-out clause: if the president felt it would damage US security to move the embassy he could sign a waiver every six months to delay the move.

Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama all signed that waiver every six months to indefinitely delay the move.

Why is Mr Trump doing this now?

Mr Trump promised during the 2016 campaign that he would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there.

The issue is important to many US voters who support Israel, especially among Mr Trump’s Evangelical Christian base.

Once he got into office, Mr Trump began to get briefings from US diplomats and American allies about the potential risks of moving the embassy. In recent months the White House has begun to signal that it planned to forge ahead.

Will the embassy move straight away?

No. Mr Trump is actually going to sign the waiver again to delay the move once more. But he has ordered the US State Department to begin the planning process. Construction of the physical embassy is likely to take at least four years.

Why do Palestinians care where the embassy is?

The US embassy will be built in the Jewish western half of Jerusalem. All major peace plans that have ever been seriously discussed agree that west Jerusalem will be part of Israel under a final deal. As one US official put it: “This is a recognition of reality.”

So why should the Palestinians care that the US embassy is moving to west Jerusalem?

The answer is twofold. Firstly, the Palestinians have always been suspicious that the US is not an “honest broker” and that it consistently sides with Israel even though it claims to be a neutral party.

Secondly, the Palestinians have always clung to the international consensus that the status of Jerusalem can only be settled through peace talks. If that consensus begins to crumble, the Palestinians fear that other countries will follow the US lead.

What does the rest of the Muslim world think?

Arab and Muslim countries have traditionally been very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and deeply opposed to Israel. That consensus has weakened in recent years and some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, are now eager to ally with Israel against their common foe Iran.

But even if Arab leaders are keen for peace with Israel they have to be careful about angering their populations, who are generally sympathetic to the Palestinians. So Arab leaders have made a public show of opposing Mr Trump’s move.

The issue of the Al-Aqsa mosque, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have risen to heaven, is sensitive for Muslims across the world. The mosque is built on top of the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, and the question of access to the area is a perpetual source of friction.

Anything that looks like an Israeli encroachment on Al-Aqsa, which is the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina could spark major protests, both among Palestinians and in the wider Muslim world. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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