Would Trump recognize Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem? – analysis

Would US President Donald Trump recognize Israeli sovereignty in areas of east Jerusalem located within the boundaries of the security barrier before leaving the White House in January?

Of all the steps he could weigh, this one sounds dramatic, but would in reality be simply the final stamp on a policy that is already almost in place, 

On Friday before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Israel, Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent and senior contributing editor Lahav Harkov asked him if there are any steps planned “in the coming months to further entrench the Trump policy with regard to Israel’s control in Judea and Samaria and especially in Jerusalem.”

Pompeo spoke only in broad terms as he hinted that indeed there could be additional plans, but did not specify what those actions might entail.

“We’re not gonna talk about the policies that are under consideration,” Pompeo said, adding that “there’s every reason to expect that the direction of travel for US policy with respect to Israel will continue.” 

Pompeo spoke at the end of a two-day trip in which he took steps to shore up de-facto recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. 

But those gestures, the visit to the Psagot Winery in the Binyamin region of the West Bank and the State Department declaration upon his departure that settlement products can be “made in Israel” while historic in nature, do not replace US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements.

The Trump administration suspended Israeli plans to annex West Bank settlements in exchange for US brokered Israeli-normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain under the rubric of its Abraham Accords. 

Since the Accords are one of Trump’s more significant and likely successful diplomatic legacies, he is unlikely to risk jeopardizing those deals.

The place where the Trump administration can still make a significant difference with regard to sovereignty, however, is in Jerusalem, specifically with US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over most of east Jerusalem. 

The Trump administration in 2019 already recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, but it has not taken a similar step in east Jerusalem. 

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Should it want to do so, the UAE and Bahrain deals do not appear to pose a barrier to such a move.

The US and Israeli pledge to suspend annexation would not necessarily be applicable to east Jerusalem because Israel already annexed it in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when it captured that territory from Jordan. The Israeli government then formalized its sovereignty over that section of the city with a Knesset vote in 1980 to apply Israeli law there. 

In addition, the Trump administration has been so strong on its Jerusalem policy, that there are those who contend that the administration has already made that leap, and that a statement to that effect would simply underscore existing US policy.

Trump entered the White House while the Palestinian Authority was heavily campaigning to delegitimize Israeli ties to Jerusalem in general as well as the Jewish connection to its most significant holy sites located there, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

The international community has recognized that east Jerusalem will be part of a future Palestinian state, but has not recognized that West Jerusalem is part of Israel, let alone its capital. This including past US administrations. The refusal to link West Jerusalem to Israel is one of the vestiges of the notion of corpus separated by which Jerusalem was initially designated in UN resolutions as an international city.

To understand how prevalent that notion is, one need to look no further than the United Kingdom’s travel advisory published over the weekend, in which it spoke of Israel and Jerusalem. The UK did not distinguish in its announcement between west and east Jerusalem. It simply spoke of all of Jerusalem as a separate entity from Israel. 

The PA has successfully harnessed international sentiment, such as that of the UK, to successfully pass cyclical UN resolutions disavowing Israeli and Jewish ties to Jerusalem. 

The Trump Administration has countered that drive with a series of strong steps in support of Israeli and Jewish ties to the city, that was also the Jewish people Biblical capital.

In 2017 Trump recognized that Jerusalem was not only part of Israel but also was its capital. His administration relocated its embassy to east Jerusalem and has allowed for US citizens born in Jerusalem to register their country of birth as Israel, if they so choose. Previous administrations had forbidden Americans born in Jerusalem from registering Israel as their country of birth.

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In addition, Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, allows for Israel to retain all the portions of Jerusalem located within the boundaries of the security barrier. It excluded only those Palestinian areas within the city’s municipal boundaries, but outside those of the barrier, which it said would be part of a future Palestinian state.

When Trump first announced recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he was careful to state that he did so without prejudice to any final status agreement between Israeli and the Palestinians.

Since that declaration the Trump administration has walked a fine line, between referring to Jerusalem as part of Israel, while at the same time allowing for confusion to reign as to whether it has recognized Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem. 

When the US changed the birth designation for Jerusalem passports, it applied a policy for disputed areas, rather than a blanket assertion. Those who want to only register their place of birth as Jerusalem and not Israel, can continue to do so. It’s a step that leaves open the possibility that it hasn’t completely recognized sovereignty.

Eugene Kontorovich, Director of Scalia Law School’s Center for the Middle East and International Law at George Mason University, said he is among those who hold that the US already recognized Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem.

When US officials speak of Jerusalem, Kontorovich said, they mean the whole city, and they visit all parts of the city within its municipal boundaries. The US Embassy is located across the Green Line, he underscored. “If that is not recognition, I do not know what is,” Kontorovich added.

“However, it is certainly the case that they can clarify [the issue] to remove all doubt,” he said.

Should the Trump administration take that step, it could argue, as it already has, that it was not introducing new US policy, but simply acting on existing policy as set out by bi-partisan Congressional resolutions, such as the 1995 US Embassy Act.

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That Act, which was signed by US President-elect Joe Biden when he was a senator, recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital and as such recognizes Israeli sovereignty over all the city.

Finally, clear US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem would go a step in the direction of assuaging American Christian Evangelical feelings with regard to the Trump administration’s failure to make good on its pledge to annex West Bank settlements, a step that was important to that Republican base.

When Pompeo was in Jerusalem, he tweeted about his visit to Jerusalem’s Old City, located over the Green Line.

As a sign of how much Jerusalem was on his mind, upon departure from Ben-Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv, Pompeo tweeted, “Wheels up from the magnificent city of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel.”

It was a statement that reflected the depth of Pompeo’s regard for the modern city and the ancient Biblical one.

Now it just remains to be seen if the Trump administration will rest on its laurels in Jerusalem or if, in its last weeks, it will further cement its support for a united Jerusalem with a formal policy that recognizes Israeli sovereignty over all or most of east Jerusalem

Out of all the potential steps the Trump administration could take, the writing for this one, already appears to be on the wall, simply awaiting a stamp of approval. 

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