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Slouching towards Jerusalem*

February 15, 2017

[*Apologies to W. B. Yeats]


Israeli Security Barrier in Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood, 2009.  Source: The Times of Israel

The Israeli news media was filled with speculation on Sunday that the Trump administration would immediately announce the [American] embassy move [to Jerusalem] — as a de facto recognition of Israel’s annexation of predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, which it captured from Jordan during the 1967 war.  The New York Times, 1/23/2017

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is meeting with Trump in the White House today. In the last couple of weeks, the Trump administration has seemed to ease off from the campaign pledge to move the embassy immediately, but has not disavowed this intention.

Why is it such a big deal to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? The answer both simple and extremely complicated.

The simple answer is that no other country has its embassy located in Jerusalem because the UN and (at least until now, the US) considers the status of Jerusalem to be subject to negotiation as part of an overall peace settlement on the status of Israeli-occupied territories. If the US embassy were to move there, it would inflame anger against both the US and Israel in the Muslim world, because it would inevitably be seen as de facto recognition of Israel’s claim to Greater Jerusalem and, by implication, support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank and continued effective control over the West Bank. A violent reaction seems highly likely.

The complicated part is understanding how all this happened and what it means for the future of people who live in the West Bank and Israel itself. To begin to comprehend all of this requires a lesson in both geography and history of the place. The following is an extremely abridged version:

Start by realizing that we’re talking about a very small place. Israel is about the size of New Jersey, and the West Bank is about the size of Delaware. The city of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Sea is less than 10 miles from the official border between Israel and the West Bank.

When Israel was carved out of the former British mandate of Palestine in 1947, a war with neighboring Arab countries broke out which expanded the area inside Israel. The 1949 armistice  established a border–generally called “the Green Line”–between Israel and the area west of the Jordan River and Dead Sea (hence the name West Bank) still controlled by Jordan. But most important, the Old City of Jerusalem containing the sites sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims remained in what was then still Jordanian territory.

All this was changed by the 1967 war, which left Israel in control of the entire West Bank. . Almost immediately, Israel annexed about 100 square miles of territory including all of East Jerusalem–something which has never been recognized by the US or the UN.

Flash forward to 1993, when the Oslo accords established a Palestinian Authority (PA) and divided the West Bank into three areas. Area A, in which the PA had both civil and security control, contained most of the major towns in geographically separated pockets of land and comprised only 18% of the land in the West Bank.  Area B, where Israel has security control and the PA civil control comprises 21% of the land area. The remainder, Area C, is fully under the control of Israel and is 61% of the West Bank. To travel from one A or B area to another, residents must pass through Area C and are subject to rigorous security searches by the Israeli military.

Meanwhile, starting soon after the 1967 war, Jewish Israelis began building settlements in East Jerusalem and scattered throughout the West Bank on land acquired by means ranging from purchase to legal seizure to outright squatting. Some of the settlements are considered “illegal”, but most have been authorized and indeed subsidized by the Israeli government. The settlements are distributed widely and have further split up the physical integrity of the West Bank, and they have been a cause of anger and violence by Palestinians. The settlers tend to be very conservative politically and religiously, and many believe in their right to control Greater Israel based on a Biblical mandate. They receive significant financial and political support from private US donors, including Jewish and conservative Christian groups.  As of December 2015, there were 406,302 Israeli settlers on the West Bank (according to official figures) plus another 360,000 in the annexed area of East Jerusalem.


Map of West Bank settlements and closures in January 2006: Yellow = Palestinian urban centers. Light pink = closed military areas or settlement boundary areas or areas isolated by the Israeli West Bank barrier; dark pink = settlements, outposts or military bases. The black line = route of the Barrier

The settlements, which have continued to proliferate to this day, have become a major impediment to the so-called “two-state solution”, which envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and has been the cornerstone of US policy for decades.  Their existence has established “facts on the ground” in the form of Israeli villages, towns, and small cities on the territory of what presumptively would be the Palestinian state, and they would be extremely difficult to remove. Moreover, their location effectively splits up the remainder of the  West Bank into non-contiguous chunks of land, which would seriously hinder the viability of a Palestinian state. This has led to charges that the settlements realize an official Israeli strategy of making any Palestinian state a kind of “Bantustan” like those set up by apartheid-era South Africa–nominally independent, but under the de facto control of Israel. Netanyahu has recently floated a “two-state-minus” idea, which is basically the Bantustan approach.

The situation has been further complicated by Israel’s construction of a 450 mile long “security barrier” (in response to the 2000-2005 infitada uprising) which is now largely complete.  The barrier, which consists of walls, fences, and electronic fences, mostly follows the Green Line (always on the Palestinian side), but in several areas makes major incursions into the West Bank to encompass many of the largest settlement blocs. In all, some 8.5% of the land area of the West Bank is now on the Israeli side of the barrier, resulting in a kind of de facto annexation and further reducing the territory that could conceivably become part of a Palestinian state. The wall now cuts off all of East Jerusalem from the West Bank, making it effectively impossible for Jerusalem to be capital of a future Palestinian state, which has been a basic demand of the PA from the outset. (See detailed map here.)


US policy has generally been disapproving of the Israeli settlements and became sharply more negative during the Obama administration.  Nevertheless, the US continues to give massive aid to Israel, much more than to any other country. For FY 2017, the US is providing $3.1 billion in security assistance to Israel, which is more than twice the amount of total assistance to the next largest recipient, Egypt. (Netanyahu actually asked for $4-5 billion!)

Trump’s nominee for US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, will be having confirmation hearings soon, possibly this week.  Most recent US ambassadors have been seasoned professional diplomats. Trump has nominated his bankruptcy lawyer, who is aligned with the extreme political right in Israel, has accused Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism”, and called liberal Jewish organizations worse than the kapos who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Friedman is to the right of Netanyahu and the Likud party. He has insisted that as ambassador he would work out of the US consulate in Jerusalem (which is officially not accredited to Israel). What could possibly go wrong?

Now Netanyahu comes to Washington in the midst of a huge and growing domestic crisis for Trump. Both the new secretaries of State and Defense will be out of town. This probably means that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner will be guiding the discussions that take place.

Most commentators think that there will be little substance to the visit. We can only hope so. The last thing anyone needs at this point is to do something aggressively stupid like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and thereby setting off another crisis in the Middle East.

UPDATE:  At the White House today, Trump managed to cast doubt on his commitment to the “two-state solution.” His remarks were basically (I’m paraphrasing here): Two-state, one-state, whatever.  Unbelievable!





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