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Dec 8, 2017 | 00:12 GMT

7 mins read

Jerusalem: A Decision of Regional Consequence

The U.S. and Israeli flags mingle in an image projected on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.
(AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • Washington's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will give jihadist groups a rallying cry to galvanize supporters and recruit new members.
  • By dimming the prospects for a two-state solution, the move will push Israelis and Palestinians alike toward a one-state model, however reluctantly.
  • Though the change in Jerusalem's status will present a challenge for most countries in the region, Iran and Turkey could turn it to their advantage.

Jerusalem is a place where deep belief and international politics collide. As a result of this powerful convergence, it's easy to overestimate the city's influence on regional relations. U.S. President Donald Trump's recent announcement that his administration would recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital met with praise, scorn and warnings of impending catastrophe from various corners of the world. Many of the proposal's critics argue that moving the U.S. Embassy to the city from Tel Aviv would cause violence and unrest, while dashing any hope of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But fears that war and widespread violence would follow the announcement are overblown. Nevertheless, the move will not be free of consequences. Beyond the manifold security implications it entails, the decision will produce unwelcome disruptions for many and opportunities for a few, even if its repercussions fall short of apocalyptic.

Where Interests Collide

Since the U.S. Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, a hard-line pro-Israel faction in the United States has pushed to recognize the holy city as the Israeli capital in keeping with the legislation's provisions. (Successive presidential administrations had continually delayed the law's implementation through waivers issued every six months.) But the United States' spiritual ties to Jerusalem reach back nearly 200 years. In the early 1800s, Boston missionary Levi Parsons urged Americans to settle Palestine to compel Jesus' return. A group of Chicagoans fleeing the Great Fire founded the American Colony of Jerusalem several decades later in 1881 as a Christian utopia; today, the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem is a historical landmark. Though the city has little strategic importance to the United States, and though Americans never constituted a major contingent of its diverse population, Jerusalem's enduring mark on the popular imagination has given it a unique place in U.S. foreign policy.

Regardless of the United States' spiritual imperatives, however, the fact remains that Jerusalem is also Islam's third-holiest city. Its symbolic loss will resonate throughout the Muslim world. The Palestinian Islamic party Hamas has called for a day of rage to protest the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. And even after all the demonstrators have gone home, activists will keep the furor alive on social media. The city is a prime military objective for extremist groups as it is. Its change in status will offer various jihadist outfits, including the nearby Islamic State franchise Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or "Defenders of Jerusalem"), a propaganda opportunity and rallying cry to galvanize disaffected Muslims. On the heels of the Islamic State's defeat in Iraq and Syria, moreover, the U.S. administration's decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem will boost the extremist group's recruitment.

Disturbing the Peace Process

The decision will also jeopardize the United States' position as a neutral broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as some have warned. By acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Washington will undermine its role in the peace process and, in turn, dim the prospects for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No other country or institution, after all, is ready to step up in the United States' place. Then again, the peace process has been moribund since long before Trump announced his intentions for Jerusalem on the campaign trail in 2016. Discord between Hamas and rival party Fatah has stalled negotiations and enabled Israel to forge ahead with its settlements in the West Bank. Furthermore, Hamas, as well as states such as Iran, have long doubted the United States' intentions as a mediator. At most, Washington's revised stance on Jerusalem will only expedite the inevitable collapse of the peace process.

As the odds of realizing a two-state solution become more remote, Palestinians may start pushing for a single state instead. But rather than achieving this goal through conquest — the solution Hamas has always espoused — Palestinians would accept annexation by Israel with full citizenship. The plan so far has support only among liberal Palestinians, and no major Palestinian leaders endorse it. Without the possibility of a two-state solution, however, the single-state alternative will become the only option for Palestinians going forward.

Israel, meanwhile, will also move toward a one-state solution. Giving recognition for Jerusalem as its capital city has for decades been a valuable bargaining chip for the United States. Now that the United States has satisfied that demand without asking for any further concessions, Israel will feel even less pressure to address the Palestinian issue. Its settlement process will continue apace, bringing Israel closer, if inadvertently, to a single-state model. The one-state solution has its drawbacks for Israel, though: Adding millions of Palestinians to the voter rolls will doom the country's Jewish majority, but denying them suffrage would spell the end of Israel as a democracy. So though the current situation may appear to be a political victory for Israel today, it will bring difficult decisions down the line.

For most states in the region, a change in Jerusalem's status in Jerusalem is an unwelcome distraction from more pressing problems.

A Decision of Regional Consequence

In addition, the change in Jerusalem's status will complicate the budding partnership between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The United States' decision will spur majority-Muslim countries around the world to band together in outrage against Israel and prompt the kingdom, as the custodian of Islam's holiest sites, to distance itself from its would-be public ally. Otherwise, Riyadh's deepening security ties to Israel would highlight the extent to which concerns over Iran's power in the region have overshadowed the question of Palestinian statehood in Saudi policy. The kingdom still will try to mitigate popular outrage against Israel, but to retain its religious legitimacy, it will have to halt or delay trade deals, official visits and changes to state curriculum, which currently depicts Israel as an invader of Muslim lands.

Jordan, where Palestinians make up nearly half the population, will also have to deal with the fallout from Jerusalem's new designation. Just five months after a security guard at the Israeli Embassy in Amman killed two Jordanians, one of them by accident, the United States' announcement will further fuel outrage in Jordan against Israel. Jordanians will take to the streets to try to force their king to justify the existence of the country's 1994 peace treaty with Israel. At the same time, the powerful Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood will capitalize on the incident to gather strength in the country's parliament while eroding the monarchy's legitimacy. Attacks on the monarchy, in turn, could slow, if not reverse, Jordan's efforts at structural economic reform.

Similarly, the threat of unrest will compel Egypt to downgrade its relations with Israel and with the United States. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will face scrutiny over his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, over Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and over his efforts to prevent arms from flowing over the Gaza border to Hamas. With elections slated for the spring, al-Sisi can't afford to put his security credentials — the foundation of his platform — at risk.

Though the United States' revised position on Jerusalem will complicate matters for many countries in the region, others may turn the situation to their favor. Washington's recent announcement, for instance, will seem to vindicate Iran's staunch anti-Israeli, anti-American stance in the coming weeks. And in Turkey, it will give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an opportunity to boost his image as a pan-Islamic leader by reducing or altogether severing relations with Israel, which he recently accused of undermining Jerusalem's Islamic character. Turkey, of course, has an underlying geopolitical incentive to restore diplomatic ties with Israel eventually, but in the meantime, suspending them will help Erdogan as he confronts his country's wobbly economy.

But Turkey and Iran are the outliers. For most states in the region, a change in Jerusalem's status is an unwelcome distraction from more pressing problems. The decision, in fact, will have undesirable side effects even for the countries that it ostensibly stands to benefit the most — the United States and Israel. Whether the repercussions live up to worst-case scenarios swirling around in the public discourse is another story.

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