Magazine article New York Times Upfront

THE BATTLE OVER Jerusalem: Why President Trump's Official Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's Capital Has Sparked So Much Debate

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

THE BATTLE OVER Jerusalem: Why President Trump's Official Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's Capital Has Sparked So Much Debate

Article excerpt

Last month, President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said that the United States will move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. The announcement, which breaks with seven decades of American policy in the Middle East, prompted protests and violence across the Arab world. It also sparked criticism from many world leaders, who said it would further complicate the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. (The two sides have been in conflict since Israel's founding in 1948.) Here's what you need to know to understand the debate surrounding President Trump's announcement.

1 Why is Jerusalem such a flashpoint?

Jerusalem is sacred to three of the world's major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Old City of Jerusalem is home to some of the holiest sites in all three religions (see "A City Divided.," facing page).

For Christians, it's where Jesus was crucified around 30 a.d. For Jews, it's the spot where the Second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 a.d., once stood and where the only remnant of that temple--a wall that held up its foundation--still stands. For Muslims, it's where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven in the 7th century.

Jerusalem's religious significance has long made the city the focus of conflict, whether between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades in the Middle Ages or more recently between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Jerusalem has been a sensitive political issue almost throughout modern history," says Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Today, both Israel and the Palestinians claim the city as their political capital. Most Middle East analysts have long assumed that any eventual peace deal between the two sides would involve some way to share Jerusalem.

2 Why did President Trump recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital?

Since 1948, it's been U.S. policy that the status of Jerusalem is a matter for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Donald Trump wasn't the first presidential candidate to promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. embassy there; Democrat Bill Clinton (president, 1993-2001) and Republican George W. Bush (president, 2001-09) did it too when they were campaigning. President Hump is, however, the first to follow through on that pledge once in office.

Hump says it's "the right thing to do" to acknowledge the reality that Jerusalem is the seat of Israel's government. Decades of avoiding that fact, he says, has done little to resolve the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result," Hump said in announcing his decision. Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, he added, is "a long overdue step to advance the peace process."

This issue is important to some of the conservative Jews and evangelical Christians who supported Trump in his run for the White House. (Many evangelicals are strong supporters of Israel because they believe Jewish possession of the Holy Land is necessary for Jesus's return.)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it may take several years to carry out the embassy move. No other country currently has an embassy in Jerusalem, but Guatemala announced it will follow the U.S. and also move its embassy there. Several other countries, including Honduras, are reportedly considering the move as well.

3 What has the reaction been to Trump's announcement?

Most of the international community--including the United Nations, the European Union, and the Pope--condemned Hump's move. British Prime Minister Theresa May called it "unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region."

Israel, on the other hand, cheered the announcement. "The Jewish people and the Jewish state will be forever grateful," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. …

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