Q - During the presidential campaign, President-elect Trump said he would move the United States embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem if he won. Other presidents like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also promised to move the embassy while campaigning for office but didn't follow through after assuming power. However, since becoming president-elect, senior advisors to Trump have said that he will do it and soon. Just a few days ago, former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told an interviewer that it's a “very big priority" for him, and there have been reports that members of Trump's team and Israeli officials have been scouting locations in Jerusalem.
Can you explain why such a move would be problematic in terms of international law and prospects for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
Mouin Rabbani - “Pursuant to UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947 recommending the partition of Palestine, Jerusalem and its environs were allocated to neither the proposed Arab nor Jewish states but rather, and in view of the unique status of the Holy City, assigned the status of corpus separatum to be placed under international administration.
“Although the nascent Israeli state conquered West Jerusalem during the 1948 War and proclaimed it as its capital, neither the United States nor other UN member states have to this day recognized Israeli sovereignty over West Jerusalem or recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, on the grounds that Israel’s claims constitute a gross violation of the 1947 partition resolution. The international community similarly refused to recognize Jordan’s claim of sovereignty over East Jerusalem after Jordan annexed the West Bank in 1950. In other words, non-recognition of any claim to sovereignty over Jerusalem pending the establishment of either an international administration as specified in the partition resolution, or an alternative arrangement (e.g. peace agreement) endorsed by the UN, has been a foundational principle of the international community’s approach to all of Jerusalem (East and West) since 1948. This position has been endorsed and applied by every US administration since 1948, and predates Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. It also explains why most states, including the US, established their embassies to Israel in Tel Aviv rather than West Jerusalem.
“In 1980, Israel’s parliament adopted the ‘Jerusalem Law,’ whose provisions were tantamount to the formal annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel. UN Security Council Resolution 478 of that same year ‘censured’ the Israeli law ‘in the strongest terms,’ declared it ‘null and void,’ and ordered those member states maintaining embassies in the Holy City (twelve Latin American states and The Netherlands) to ‘withdraw’ them. All promptly did so.
“With the commencement of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the 1990s, and in the context of an international consensus that the conflict should be resolved on the basis of an end to Israeli occupation and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state (the two-state settlement), the general diplomatic view today is that once such a settlement is achieved Israel and Palestine should each have a recognized capital in Jerusalem.
“Although American presidential candidates in recent decades habitually proclaim their intention to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem if elected, and Congress has passed legislation to this effect, such obligatory displays of political correctness have yet to survive contact with reality. This is for the simple reason that such a dramatic break with 70 years of US and indeed global policy, which would today have the added effect of seeking to unilaterally rewrite international law and predetermine the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, would constitute an act of premeditated political pyromania with unforeseen local, regional and global consequences. Yet the Trump-Pence administration-in-waiting, no doubt egged on by Sheldon Adelson, Steve Bannon and the growing coterie of extremists it has taken aboard, seems determined to do exactly this.
“There’s also an additional twist: in 1989 Israel leased a plot of land to the US on which to build its Jerusalem embassy. Extensive research conducted by the pre-eminent Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi demonstrated not only that this land is confiscated Palestinian refugee property, but also that many of the heirs of the original owners are US citizens.”