President Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin the process of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv does more than fulfill a campaign promise. It corrects a historic imbalance in U.S. policy and removes accumulated scar tissue that has restricted the flow of new perspectives after a quarter century of U.S.-mediated peace negotiations. It necessitates challenging old and worn assumptions on one of the issues at the heart of the conflict: the Jerusalem fiction.
The crux of the issue as it relates to any form of Palestinian–Israeli peace talks is who will control the Holy City, or Old City, of Jerusalem. That space accounts for 0.38 square miles of land, including where the Jewish temples once stood, and where the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, today houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is also where the Western Wall is located, along with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Leaving aside the various religious claims on this tiny parcel of land, having a read on the modern-day history that shaped the city’s status is essential to understanding why U.S. policy has contributed to the negotiating stalemate and will ultimately be helpful in gauging the implications of a policy shift.
In 1947, the United Nations endorsed a partition plan for two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. The Jerusalem-Bethlehem region was to be an enclave under international administration. While the Jews accepted the plan, the Arabs rejected it and launched a war to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state. Without the help of foreign powers, and to the surprise of many, the Jews prevailed, declaring the establishment and independence of Israel on May 14, 1948.
By the war’s end in 1949, Jordan controlled the West Bank, including the Old City of Jerusalem, which it annexed in 1950, along with the 2.3-square-mile surrounding environs, which it referred to as East Jerusalem. The Jordanians destroyed much of the Jewish Quarter, expelled most of its residents, and forbade Jews from entering the Holy City or East Jerusalem.
Israel, for its part, held onto a 15-square-mile portion of what it called West Jerusalem, on land it had long inhabited. That’s where the Israelis set up their government institutions, including the parliament (the Knesset) and supreme court. Meanwhile, no party to the conflict endorsed the view that Jerusalem should be an internationally administered enclave. As a result, U.S. policy shifted.
In 1949, the Truman administration officially recognized Israel with its expanded territory, beyond what was proposed in the 1947 U.N. partition plan, but did not recognize any portion of Israeli-held Jerusalem, instead stating that the city’s status should be resolved through negotiations. To that end, the U.S. embassy was established in Tel Aviv.
In the June 1967 war, Israel captured the West Bank and the Jordanian-held portion of Jerusalem and expanded the city’s municipal boundaries. Still, the U.S kept its embassy in Tel Aviv, preferring a stance of neutrality.
Nevertheless, American presidents who have gone to Israel — beginning with Richard Nixon in 1974 — have all visited Jerusalem to meet with politicians and heads of state, and three have even spoken before the Knesset. Likewise, a few years later, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat decided he wanted to make peace, he didn’t go to Tel Aviv but to Jerusalem to address the Knesset in 1977.
The peace negotiations for which the U.S. shifted its policy in 1949 would have to wait nearly half a century, until the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords in Washington between the Israelis and Palestinians. At that time, Israel expanded the city’s municipal boundaries to incorporate 48 square miles of land — certainly more than the 15 square miles of West Jerusalem that Israel held from 1949 until 1967 or the 0.38 square miles that remains the area considered to be the Holy City.
Meanwhile, the U.S. kept its embassy in Tel Aviv, and with the dawn of the Oslo peace process, it finally maintained a consulate general in Jerusalem. But that consulate remains tasked solely with representing American interests to the Palestinian Authority (PA) — not Israel.
By the 1990s, the Jerusalem issue for the U.S. wasn’t just an imbalanced policy but one in which politicians on both sides of the political aisle demonstrated their hypocrisy.
In effect, while America’s goal was neutrality on the Jerusalem issue, it was favoring Palestinian claims to the city by only representing itself in East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. This was a major impetus for Congress to pass by wide bipartisan margins the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act, which was designed not only to correct this imbalance but to comport with reality.
By the 1990s, the Jerusalem issue for the U.S. wasn’t just an imbalanced policy but one in which politicians on both sides of the political aisle demonstrated their hypocrisy. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each made campaign pledges to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem but didn’t follow through once in office. This past June the Senate passed a resolution by a 90–0 vote that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, stating that “Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected,” adding that “there has been a continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem for 3 millennia.”
While some who voted for the resolution are now up in arms, what President Trump announced didn’t even go as far as the text of the resolution for which they voted. After all, the president made clear, “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” That means he wasn’t even declaring that Jerusalem must remain undivided but that the contours of those boundaries will be worked out in negotiations, which he did not prejudge.
Declaring that no part of Jerusalem is Israeli, including the 15 square miles of West Jerusalem that Israel has held since its modern establishment as a state in 1948, reinforces a reality that the crux of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict is not about territory, borders, and the “occupation” that came as a result of the 1967 war, but rather is about 1948 issues — Israel’s existence.
An assumption that only Israel should vacate its own capital and defend the concept of its own existence, just to placate the day’s fashionable political leanings, is irrational, hypocritical, and patently absurd. Moreover, the international community’s pernicious adherence to the fiction that Israel’s capital isn’t in Jerusalem helps reinforce deleterious aspects of Palestinian mythology. Indeed, the Jerusalem fiction prevents them from grappling with reality and revisiting their red lines that could end the conflict and lead to their statehood.
The shock to the international system that President Trump delivered was a long-overdue dose of reality. Israel’s existence and its capital in Jerusalem are facts. Likewise, acknowledged or not, gravity was already happening before the apple struck Isaac Newton on his head. Its recognition, however, paved a path forward in scientific discovery. Trump’s recognition of realism, rather than favoring fiction, could do the same for the peace process.