For a city proclaimed as the capital of a nation, Jerusalem is unique for not housing any foreign embassies. There are close to a dozen consulates in Jerusalem, but all the diplomatic headquarters of foreign missions to Israel are located in Tel Aviv. This is not an accident but an expression, in concrete terms, of the international recognition of Jerusalem's disputed status. For a foreign state to situate its embassy to Israel in any part of Jerusalem would confer legitimacy on Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem.
It is therefore alarming that the administration of US president Donald Trump should threaten, in 2017, to stamp on international law and recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. US presidents have faced pressure from interest groups to move the embassy to Jerusalem since the 1960s. In 1995, however, they were joined by the US Congress, which passed legislation compelling the president to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and relocate its embassy there by 1999. The law included a provision allowing the White House to extend the deadline for up to six months in the interest of national security; every occupant since then has invoked that clause to defer the law's full enactment.
East Jerusalem is regarded by Palestinians as the future capital of their state. The Palestinians have endured countless indignities at the hands of Israel – from the denial of their identity to the theft of their land – but legitimising Israel's illegal occupation of Jerusalem would be a step too far. It would permanently destroy whatever slender prospects of peace that still remain. It would signal to Israel that that its colonisation of Palestinian land to build Jewish settlements in defiance of UN resolutions and international laws is an acceptable practice. It will, as Jordan and the Arab League have cautioned, trigger an eruption of righteous rage and boost fanaticism in the Arab world that may be impossible to contain. Saudi Arabia, which urged the US not to incite "tensions in the region", was followed on Tuesday by the president of Turkey, who warned Washington that Ankara would sever all diplomatic ties with Israel if Washington recognised Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State. French president Emmanuel Macron has openly asked the US not to "unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel".
Every incoming US president in recent memory has seen his grand ambition to find a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict turn to nothing. Their failures cannot be isolated from the asymmetry of power between Israel, the occupier, and Palestine, the victim. Mr Trump probably believes that his action on Jerusalem might push the two parties towards an historic deal. What it will instead do is make history from which it might be impossible for both sides to escape. The international community must rally. It must act before irreparable damage is done, but it must do so in the knowledge that nothing short of the end of the occupation would repair that harm.
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