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A Capital Idea: Leave the U.S. Embassy in Israel Right Where It Is

Last January, the Washington Institute for Near East Studies (WINEP), founded by former US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations Martin Indyk, published an article by Lebanese scholar Hassan Mneimneh on the potential relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The author contends that the international community and the “Arab world” should support the “relocation within the confines of Western Jerusalem,” while Washington “may consider issuing a separate statement about its appreciation of Palestinian aspirations and its intent.”

Related claims – including by former State Department officials Dennis Ross and David Makovsky – have been expressed in a number of publications of late. Former Knesset member Einat Wilf, for instance, published a 4-step guide “for Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem,” claiming that this will put an end to the “fiction” that Jerusalem is a “Corpus Separatum,” as envisioned in the 1947 UNGA partition plan. In Wilf’s words, “the fiction never existed for simple reason that the Arabs rejected the partition proposal and opened war to prevent it from being realized, and in losing the war Jerusalem west of the armistice lines became undisputedly Israel’s, and Jerusalem east of the line entered an extended period of disputed claims.”

Despite these common assertions, Israel’s admission to the UN on May 11, 1949 was not unconditional, but bound up with the full acceptance of the provisions regarding Jerusalem (Israel’s original application for admission was, not by chance, rejected by the UNSC): “Negotiations,” Abba Eban told the UNGA “would not, however, affect the juridical status of Jerusalem, to be defined by international consent.”

These assurances were made one year after the war of 1947-48 (see Uri Avnery’s “sacred mantras” on “rejectionism”) and none of the historical events of the following 68 years have the legal capacity to erase them.

On top of this, to invoke the relocation of the US embassy while ignoring the broader picture (including the situation in the West Bank) and continuing to turn a blind eye to the policies carried out in Jerusalem by right-wing groups such as Elad (often using the controversial Absentee Property Law to take over apartments in densely-populated Arab quarters) would only lead to more violence. This is even more the case when considering that the relocation of the US embassy would represent a political “fact on the ground” with practical legal and political consequences, while the proposal by Mneimneh to issue a “separate statement” about “Palestinian aspirations” would be tantamount to a verbal, largely abstract suggestion, no different from the ones adopted by a number of U.S. administrations to condemn settlements and support the two-state solution.

So why, then, are so many recently published articles promoting unilateral actions regarding Jerusalem? The answer might be found in the claims made by those supporting these and other unilateral solutions.

Several Islamic figures, in Palestine and elsewhere, provide Ideological solutions, while expressing extremist views aiming at denying any connection between Jews and what is known to them, since millennia, as the “Temple Mount.”

“Those who claim that they Jews Egyptian theologian Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. A study published by the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information went a step further, warning that “no Muslim or Arab or Palestinian had the right to give up one stone of Al-Buraq Wall.”

On the other side, Bar Ilan University political scientist Mordechai Kedar and other scholars claim that that “Jerusalem is a Jewish city”, and that “is not mentioned even once in the Koran,” while a growing number of groups such as the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement declare “their long terms objectives” as follows: “Liberating the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation.”

Despite such absolutist claims, “Uru-Shalem” (the city “founded by Shalem,” a god venerated by the Canaanites), founded by the Canaanites around 5,000 years ago, has not belonged to one single people in its entire history. Long before of the three monotheistic religions, Al-Haram al-Sharif, the site on which Solomon’s Temple stood, hosted a Canaanite place of worship. It is noteworthy that in biblical usage Jerusalem is often mentioned as “Zion,” the high ground where its original inhabitants built the present city’s original fortress. “Siyon” is a term of Canaanite origin that can be translated as “hill” or “high ground.”

At the turn of the 20th century almost 80 percent of its population lived in mixed neighborhoods and quarters. This is a further reason why in its nature it must be internationally (or at least bilaterally) shared. Moshe Ma’oz, one of the most renowned Israeli historians, explained to me why in this complex process religion must play an inclusive role: it functions as a recipe against the denial of others’ claims and in support of the acceptance of others’ traumas and “myths.”

“The mosque of al-Aqsa, or ‘the farthest,’”Ma’oz clarified, “which is discussed in Quran’s Sura 17, the one on prophet Muhammad’s night journey, is certainly the result of an interpretation. But I wonder what difference it makes if Jerusalem is explicitly mentioned or not in the Quran. All religious matters are the result of interpretations. A number of academics have demonstrated that the history of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt is full of distortions. This does not change anything for us, Jews. We continue to believe in our myths, as other peoples continue to believe in theirs. It is not a matter of facts, but of beliefs. A billion and a half Muslims believe in the Isra and the Mi‘raj, the Prophet’s night journey to Jerusalem. This is what matters, unless we do not intend to scrutinize all the events mentioned in the books of the three monotheistic religions, to find historical evidence. If so, we would be very disappointed.”

Two major lessons can be drawn from the events inflaming current-day, terrestrial Jerusalem. First, religion cannot be used as a political tool, to deny the beliefs and the “myths” of others – in this case either Jews or Muslims. Second, recognizing (through embassies or other means) the unilateral de facto annexation of the city should not be perceived as a positive step. A solution must be found through sharing (two embassies) or internationalizing Jerusalem, particularly its Old City, and in striving to trigger a radical political change in the status of what also the US Department of State considers as “occupied territories”: an area where, in 50 years, millions of people are tried in military courts (99.74% of the trials end in convictions) and deprived of any citizenship (i.e. rights). If none of these scenarios can be achieved, the status quo in Jerusalem and its most sensible sites remains – at least for now – the least worst alternative

Lorenzo Kamel, a historian at the University of Freiburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS), is a Senior Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and a nonresident Associate at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). He published six books including Imperial Perceptions of Palestine: British Influence and Power in Late Ottoman Times, 1854-1923 (winner of the Palestine Book Award 2016). Follow him on Twitter, @lorenzokamel

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