Will Trump's Jerusalem move backfire?

The ramifications and fallout of President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem will be felt for years to come and only time will tell whether it was wise.

The historical background goes back to millennia. The aspiration of the Jewish people to make Jerusalem ‘their city’ is a dream that is more than 3,000 years old. In the 13th century B.C., Moses guided his people out of Egypt and, after wandering 40 years in Palestine, he died before reaching Jerusalem, looking at the skyline of the city from a distance.

In later centuries, Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and their re-entry was banned by the Roman Empire and its eastern successor the Byzantine Empire. It was only in the Ottoman period that Jews enjoyed peace and security in Jerusalem.

More recent efforts to establish a home for the Jewish community in Palestine were launched in 1917. British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, in a letter dated Nov. 2, 1917, addressed to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, made a commitment on behalf of the British government for the establishment of such a home.

Thirty years after the Balfour Declaration, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 181, to partition Palestine between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Part III of this resolution is entitled ‘City of Jerusalem’ and provides that Jerusalem shall be established as a ‘corpus separatum’ under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations.

The boundaries of the city were delineated and a map was attached to show the geographical extension. A detailed mechanism was provided for the appointment of the city’s governor. He was not to be a citizen of either state in Palestine. All residents of Jerusalem were to become citizens of Jerusalem, not of Palestine or Israel.

‘Corpus separatum’ means a separate body, a separate entity. In other words, it was neither Israel nor Palestine. Therefore, Trump’s decision means in reality moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv in Israel, to an entity that is not Israel.

The status of ‘corpus separatum’ eroded as time went by. British mandatory authorities left Palestine without transferring power to UN authorities. Furthermore, the Arab-Israeli clashes of 1948 prevented the proper establishment of the ‘corpus separatum’.

Trump’s initiative caused a very strong negative reaction in the Islamic world as well as in the international community. Pope Francis called for “the status quo of Jerusalem to be respected and for wisdom and prudence to prevail to avoid further conflict”. Britain’s prime minister and the French president also voiced concern.

Leaders of the Islamic world raised strong objections to the move. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in his capacity as the sessional chairman of the Islamic Cooperation Organisation (OIC), was more vocal than other Muslim leaders. He announced he would convene an OIC meeting in Istanbul on Dec. 14.

A very strong statement may come out of this meeting, but it is uncertain whether any common action will follow. Attacks on Israeli and U.S. targets, or intifada type civil disobedience, may be expected, but both of these countries probably believe they will be able to cope with them.

Trump may have chosen this period for the move because of the turbulent atmosphere the Middle East is going through. The countries most closely interested in Palestine – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – are busy with their own problems. Saudi Arabia is trying to cooperate with Israel to counter Iran, which they both consider as the biggest threat to their security. Egypt is in dire need of support from both the United States and Israel. Jordan is overwhelmed by the Syrian refugee problem.

French 17th century novelist Jean de La Fontaine said: “The reason of the strongest is always the best”. Time will show to what extent this is still valid today.