This week, President Trump declared that his administration is recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in a move, he claims, that will “advance the peace process and work towards a lasting agreement,” reversing nearly 70 years of U.S. foreign policy. On this, not only is Trump wrong, but also his actions threaten to set the precedent for a new international system based on aggression rather than the rule of law.
Under the United Nations’ 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine, Jerusalem was never intended to be the capital of any country, but rather a shared city under an international regime with sovereignty resting with neither Israel nor Palestinians. In 1948, when Israel was established and Israeli forces proceeded to take control of 78 percent of Palestine, they also occupied a large part of Jerusalem’s western half. In the 1967 war, when Israel occupied the remainder of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the eastern part of Jerusalem also came under Israel’s military rule. Yet despite numerous Israeli attempts since 1948 to have its declaration of Jerusalem as its capital recognized internationally, not a single country around the world has accepted its claims, for one simple reason: Acquiring territory by force goes against international law.
Accepting Jerusalem, holy to three monotheistic religions, as Israel’s capital sends the message to Israel and the world that “might is right” and that the United States accepts that Israel can use force whenever it wishes to expand its borders. This is not a precedent that the world should be embracing.
Trump’s statement comes after years of inaction by both Democratic and Republican presidents. For five decades, U.S. presidents have idly watched as Israel has expropriated Palestinian land in occupied East Jerusalem, built Israeli-only settlements on that land, demolished Palestinian homes and allowed Israeli settlers to take them over, all in contravention of official U.S. policy, not to mention international law. Indeed, the “peace process” that Trump claims to seek to advance only served to give Israel cover to continue its theft of Palestinian land. Although the United States occasionally condemned settlement expansion, U.S. assistance to Israel has increased throughout the years in the belief that carrots, not sticks, would incentivize Israel to end its military occupation and allow Palestinians to live in freedom.
Yet the message that Trump has sent to Israel is clear: The United States accepts illegal Israeli actions and will continue to turn a blind eye to them.
And while Trump may think that bilateral negotiations are the path to ending Israel’s rule over Palestine, on this, too, he is mistaken. As someone who was involved in negotiations for several years, including at times when many claimed Palestinians and Israelis were close to reaching an agreement, I know the reality was much different.
In negotiations, Israel insisted that Palestinians give up our rights in order to accommodate Israeli wrongs. We were told that we would need to continue to allow Israeli settlers to remain on stolen Palestinian land while Palestinian refugees would never be allowed to return to their homes — all for the sake of peace. We were told that negotiations to have Jerusalem be a shared, open city were “off the table” and that demands for equality were “non-starters.” And, while the negotiations — now entering their 25th year — continued, the on-the-ground reality for Palestinians only worsened. Indeed, since the start of negotiations in 1993 until the current day, Israel has tripled the number of Israeli settlers living illegally on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — from about 200,000 in 1993 to more than 600,000 today. Far from being the international city that the world called for, Israel is trying to turn Jerusalem into a city for Israeli Jews — with policies designed to make life unlivable for Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, and with Palestinian Christians and Muslims living nearby in the occupied West Bank and Gaza requiring difficult-to-obtain Israeli permission to pray at their holy sites in the city. This is not a recipe for peace but a declaration of superiority. Palestinian support for this bilateral process was at an all-time low before Trump’s declaration and is likely now nonexistent, for how can Palestinians buy into a process that has only served to entrench their subjugation while serving to legitimize Israel’s illegal actions?
In the numerous years I have spent in Jerusalem, I have seen trends and events that have unequivocally changed it for the worse — whether the construction of Israel’s 25-foot concrete wall, the destruction of thousands of Palestinian homes for spurious bureaucratic reasons, the expulsion of friends from their homes, the construction of illegal settlements that have scarred the landscape, or the erection of countless checkpoints to control Palestinian movement. Jerusalem’s approximately 300,000 Palestinians are now squeezed — indeed suffocating — under Israeli military rule. Trump’s announcement will only serve to embolden those who wish to see Jerusalem free from Palestinians.
It is imperative that the world send a strong message to Israel that it will no longer accept Israel’s illegal actions in Jerusalem, which cause such harm to Palestinians living there and efforts to make peace in the region. Instead of turning a blind eye or rewarding Israel’s illegal acts, the international community should start imposing sanctions on Israel immediately, in order to let Israeli leaders and the world know that Israel is not above the law and that Palestinians are not beneath it.
Diana Buttu served as a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team and was directly involved in negotiations with Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.