Shock, Criticism at Trump's Decision to Shift US Embassy to Jerusalem

India's response was muted, with no reiteration of its long standing position on East Jerusalem being the future capital of Palestine.

New Delhi: United States president Donald Trump on Wednesday announced that the US embassy will be shifted to Jerusalem following his government’s official recognition of the holy city as Israel’s capital – a move greeted by a chorus of criticism from across the world.

India’s official response, issued on Thursday morning, was relatively muted compared to Washington’s European and Arab allies. “India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by any third country,” said MEA spokesperson Ravish Kumar. There was no reiteration of the long-held position that East Jerusalem was the capital of a future state of Palestine.

Standing in the White House Diplomatic Reception room with Vice President Mike Pence behind him, Trump said that “today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital”.

“However, through all of these years, presidents representing the United States have declined to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In fact, we have declined to acknowledge any Israeli capital at all. But today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done.”

Trump claimed that his decision would not impact the US commitment to peace.

“This decision is not intended, in any way, to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians,” he said.

Amidst protests, a question mark over ‘two state solution’

Reactions came in fast and quick. Protests broke out immediately in Gaza on Wednesday, with Al-Jazeera reporting that hundreds of Palestinians have taken to the streets. There were also demonstrations in Istanbul, Lebanon and Jordan, with security alerts issued for Americans embassies and citizens across the region.  Saeb Erekat, Palestine’s top peace negotiator,  told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that “the two state solution was over” and that now Palestinians will strive for “one state”. The Palestinian group Hamas announced that Trump had “opened the gates of hell”.

The two state solution is the idea of Israel and Palestine as separate states, each with its own sovereign territory – the goal that the international community has backed and the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have endorsed ever since the Oslo accords. ‘One state’ means the creation of a unified democratic state in the territory of undivided Palestine as it existed before 1948, with equal rights for Jews and Arabs, including the right of refugees to return to homes from which they were expelled in 1948.

Germany reiterated that the status of Jerusalem cannot be “pre-judged”, while France said that the move “contradicted” international law and “ignored” UN Security Council resolutions. Within the US, there was criticism from the Democrats while Republicans praised the move.

The European Commission was quick off the mark to “express serious concern” and noted that the EU’s position “remained unchanged”. UK’s secretary of state foreign and commonwealth affairs Boris Johnson said that London did not agree with Trump, but also tried to put a gloss on the differences by claiming the US president had now committed himself to the two-state solution.

It was deep in the night in Moscow and Beijing when the announcement was made by Trump, but both capitals had previously expressed concern about the imminent decision. Noting that China supported East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, a Chinese spokesperson had said on Wednesday morning in Beijing that all parties should “avoid impacting on the long-standing basis for the settlement of the Palestinian issue or triggering new rivalry in the region”. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres described Jerusalem as a “final status issue” and noted that there was “no alternative to two state solution”.

Why Jerusalem matters

Trump on Wednesday also ordered the State Department to “begin preparation to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem” with the hiring of architects, engineers and planners. The new US embassy in Jerusalem, he stated, “will be a magnificent tribute to peace”.

He added that despite shifting the embassy, the US was “not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders”. “Those questions are up to the parties involved,” he added. Trump acknowledged that Jerusalem was one of the “most sensitive issues” in the talks between Israel and Palestine, even as he said that he will “do everything in my power to help forge” an agreement acceptable to both sides.

The US president said that he will support the two-state solution “if agreed to by both sides”. He had previously stated that the US was not committed to the two-state solution. “In the meantime, I call on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif,” Trump added.

The real estate tycoon-turned politician said that US presidents had been issuing waivers since Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy act in 1995 which mandated the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem. “After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result,” he argued.

At the end of his speech, he signed the six-monthly waiver allowed under the act after the president “determines and reports to Congress in advance that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

Despite affirmations that the US will push for a renewed peace process, Palestinian leaders have made it clear that the Jerusalem announcement essentially meant that Washington was now “disqualified” from playing any role. There was a jubilant welcome from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as well as the top Jewish-American advocacy groups. Netanyahu described the announcement as a “historic day” for Israel. The largest pro-Israel lobbying group in the US, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee tweeted a welcome, minutes after Trump’s announcement.

The liberal pro-Israel advocacy organization, J Street, however criticized the announcement as having no benefit.

The Trump administration, driven by a strong pro-Israel instinct, had earlier tried to shut down the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s office in Washington, but backtracked after Palestinians threatened to end their role in the peace process.

The status of the holy city of Jerusalem – known as Al Quds by the Arabs – is key to West Asia’s longest standing dispute. Held sacred by Muslims, Christians and Jews, Jerusalem has been the target for conquests from the Romans to the Crusaders, the Ottoman empire, the British and now is the centre of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

In 1947, the United Nations created Israel through a partition plan which allowed for the City of Jerusalem to be governed by a “special international regime”. The Arab states rejected the UN’s partition plan.

A day after Israel officially announced its independence in 1948, conflict broke out with a coalition of Arab states. After 10 months of fighting, Israel signed armistice agreements which allowed it to occupy territory allocated under UNGA resolution 181, but also West Jerusalem. In 1950, the first Israeli parliament announced that Jerusalem “was, and had always been, the capital of Israel.”

Jerusalem became a divided city, the western half with Israel, and Jordan administering the eastern part, which also included the old city that housed Haram al-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount. The 1967 war led to Israel seizing Jordan’s portion of Jerusalem – but its illegal occupation was never recognized internationally.

Thirteen years later, Israel parliament passed a law declaring the “complete and united” Jerusalem to be the country’s capital city. Palestinians have equally strong emotions for the ancient city, with East Jerusalem declared as the capital city of their future independent state. The status of the city is so contentious that all previous efforts – from the 1978 Camp David accords to the Oslo Peace Process in the ‘nineties – had postponed talks on Jerusalem to the ‘final’ negotiations. In 2000, talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in Camp David broke down over the jurisdiction of tunnels under the Western Wall. That same year, the then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon led a group of lawmakers to the Temple Mount complex, which triggered the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Till now, the US had always maintained that the resolution of the Jerusalem question would be a part of negotiations between the stakeholders of the dispute. Though there is an American consulate there, a reflection of the US position on the “international” status of Jerusalem was that Americans born in the holy city could not list Israel as the place of birth in their passports. While the White House has maintained this position over the years, Congress, dominated by Republicans, has opposed it.

After the 1995 Embassy Act, US lawmakers in 2002 again passed a law for shifting the embassy, as well as ordering the State Department to allow the  listing of Israel in passports for Americans born in Jerusalem. US President George W. Bush signed the law, but refused to implement it – with his successor, Barack Obama taking the same position. The Act was also legally challenged, with the US Supreme Court striking down the Congressional law on listing Israel.

Earlier on Tuesday, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would cut funding for Palestine if the government continued to give money to militants and their families.

What’s driving Trump’s position

Trump had claimed that his announcement was fulfilment of a campaign promise. With most of his domestic agenda in tatters, especially his repeal of Obamacare, observers asserted that the move was largely to appeal to his core base of evangelical Christians.

Further, in April this year, Politico reported that Trump’s biggest donor, Sheldon Adelson had “expressed frustration” over the delay in relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. According to analysts in the US media, both secretary of state Rex Tillerson and defense secretary Jim Mattis opposed the Jerusalem shifting, while permanent representative to the UN, Nikki Haley was in favour.

The Washington Post quoted anonymous “senior advisors” as saying that Trump “did not seem to have a full understanding of the issue and instead appeared to be focused on “seeming pro-Israel,” in the words of one, and “making a deal,” in the words of another.

Brookings’ Shibley Telhami, however, disagreed that Trump was trying to pander to his base, seeing the move as part of the administration’s geopolitical strategy. “Trump certainly doesn’t need to solidify his pro-Israel credentials; three of his key Middle East advisers are known to be sympathetic with the Israeli right. More importantly, the American public, including his Republican core, already thinks his policy is pro-Israel,” he wrote on a blog for the Washington-based think-tank.

He noted that Trump – and his advisors – may already have given up on pushing for peace in the Middle East and “were looking for ways to pin the blame on someone else”.

Further, he believed that Trump’s allies in Saudi Arabia will limit their statements to “lip service, as they are all interested in protecting relations with Trump over more urgent issues, such as fighting militancy and confronting Iran”.

Though Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is ostensibly leading the push for a new Mid-East peace process, there was no response from him on the Jerusalem announcement on Wednesday. The New York Times had earlier reported that the new peace plan – which envisages a very limited Palestinian state – had been formulated in consultation with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and Israelis have been increasingly drawing closer to combat the perceived expanding influence of Iran.

During his speech, Trump announced that Pence would be travelling soon to the region to “reaffirm our commitment to work with partners throughout the Middle East to defeat radicalism that threatens the hopes and dreams of future generations”.

Anger on the Arab street

The US will be seeking the support of partners to “defeat radicalism” while the region will be roiling from the announcement. Nearly all Arab states – from Saudi Arabia to Jordan – had already cautioned Trump against the move in the run-up to the announcement.

Following the announcement on Wednesday, the Arab League has called for an emergency meeting on Saturday, based on a request from Palestine and Jordan.

There was a barrage of criticism from Arab states, with the Saudi foreign ministry expressing regret and terming it an “irresponsible” step, while Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi implicitly cautioned that Trump’s move could fuel further extremism. Turkish President Recep Erdogan was on the phone to call upon Muslim countries to “come together to display joint action and coordination”, while his foreign minister described the Jerusalem announcement as “irresponsible”.

Turkey also called for a meeting of OIC countries, with  Erdogan speaking to the leaders of Qatar, Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. “Jerusalem is our honour, our common cause, and as Mr. President said yesterday, it is our red line,” Turkish presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın said on Wednesday.

New Delhi not only issued a rather mild response on Washington’s move, but notably had chosen not to echo  the dire warnings emanating from world capitals publicly warning Washington against taking the step in the run-up to the announcement on Wednesday.

India’s stand under strain

India’s position, articulated frequently till a few years ago, had been in support of a sovereign and united Palestine “with east Jerusalem as its capital”. In line with other countries, India’s embassy is based in Tel Aviv.

An example of the traditional stance was India’s intervention at the 2012 meeting of the NAM committee on Palestine:

“India supports a negotiated solution resulting in a sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its Capital, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and UNSC Resolutions 1397 & 1515. In addition, we have also supported the Arab Peace Initiative. [External Affairs Minister, Tehran, August 2012]”

Under Prime Minister Modi, India has ushered in a more visible partnership with Israel, even as external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj asserted that there was no change in India’s traditional support for the “Palestinian cause” after she tried to stop a parliamentary debate.

While India had voted in favour of a UNHRC resolution in 2014 instituting a probe against Israel, New Delhi abstained when the UN body voted on ‘war crimes’ by Israel under operation Protective Edge in Gaza. India has since abstained in subsequent resolutions against Israel at the UN.

Similarly, India shifted position in another UN body. In April 2016, it voted in favour of a resolution at UNESCO which Israel claimed did not recognize the Jewish heritage of Jerusalem. But, six months later, India abstained and again repeated the same voting pattern in May 2017.

However, at the end of his visit to Israel and Palestine in October 2015, President Pranab Mukherjee stated that India was in favour of a “sovereign, independent, viable and united State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel as endorsed in the Quartet Roadmap and relevant UNSC Resolutions.” This was also stated by Indian vice president Hamid Ansari in his visit to Israel in January 2016.

During the same period, India signed onto multilateral documents like the BRICS declarations of 2014, 2015 and 2016 which specified a united Palestine with east Jerusalem as its capital as an essential component for peace in West Asia. The BRICS special envoys on middle east, who met in Vishakhapatnam in April this year, also reiterated this position, as well as, the desire to contribute on a “bigger scale” towards the peace process.

However, the 2017 Xiamen declaration of BRICS did not mention East Jerusalem, but did talk of adherence to relevant UNSC resolutions and support for an “independent, viable, territorially contiguous Palestinian State”.

India’s joint statements with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 2016 had also referred to the holy city as being part of the two-state solution. In January 2016, Swaraj went to Bahrain for the first Arab-India Cooperation forum. The Manama declaration’s first item on regional issues was on Palestine.

Four months later, India signed another document – this time, along with Russia and China – which referred to East Jerusalem as the future Palestinian capital. This stand has not, however, been articulated by the Indian political leadership lately. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a statement while standing next to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2017, he made no reference to  East Jerusalem. Abbas had been specifically invited to India ahead of Modi’s visit to Israel. The invitation had been made as Modi was going to break with previous custom and not visit both Israel and Palestine in the same visit. The joint statement issued at the end of Modi’s visit to Israel did not again refer to the two-state solution.

Following the omission of East Jerusalem in the Indian Prime Minister’s statement in May, a scholar of India-Israeli relations, JNU’s P R Kumaraswamy claimed that the absence was deliberated and signaled a “major departure from the past”.

On Thursday, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) condemned Trump’s announcement and demanded that “the Modi government come out strongly disapproving of the US action, as it goes against India’s longstanding commitment to the Palestinian cause.”