What's at stake if Trump moves U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem

While many Israelis welcome U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as their capital, Palestinians have said the move would end American efforts to bring peace to the region, writes Derek Stoffel.

Israeli security forces prepare for protests

In January, demonstrators in Tel Aviv protested against U.S. President Donald Trump's promise to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

When Prime Minister Joe Clark pledged in 1979 to move Canada's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, there were warnings the move would bring demonstrations — even violence — throughout the Arab world. At the same time, Jewish Israelis welcomed the change in policy.

The brand-new PM, who was trying to fulfill a campaign promise, eventually backed down, but the debate nearly four decades ago offers a reminder of just how politically sensitive Jerusalem is for Israelis and Palestinians, who both lay claim to the city as their capital. 
Former Prime Minister Joe Clark, seen at a 1979 news conference where he discussed his plans to move Canada's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (CBC)

While running for U.S. president, Donald Trump made a similar pledge to move his country's embassy. On Tuesday, he told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a phone call that that is indeed what he intends to do.

The news has the Middle East again bracing for demonstrations that could turn violent.

Why is this controversial?

The final status of Jerusalem is one of the most complex and contentious issues in the long-running conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Trump is not the first U.S. president to pledge moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

The city is revered by the three monotheistic religions. It is home to religious sites sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, mainly in the Old City in East Jerusalem. 

That section of Jerusalem was occupied by Israel after the Six Day War in 1967. The Jewish state later annexed the territory, in a move never recognized by the international community.

As a result, all countries with diplomatic missions to Israel maintain their embassies about 60 kilometres down Highway 1 in Tel Aviv. In light of Clark's failed 1979 effort, Canada's embassy remains in Tel Aviv, in a grey office building called Canada House. (Canada maintains a small representative office in Ramallah that deals with affairs in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.)

What is the Israeli reaction?

Trump's decision to break from international norms and recognize Jerusalem as the capital is welcomed by many Israelis, who feel it's only logical, given the fact their country's parliament, the Knesset, as well as its Supreme Court and ministerial offices are located there.
This poster could be seen in Jerusalem prior to Trump's visit to Israel in May. (Jared Thomas CBC)

Sheldon Schorer, the former chair of Democrats Abroad Israel, said the move represents "a very significant change."

"It will move Israel forward in terms of recognizing that Israel is a country like every other country in the world," he said.

What about Palestinians?

Palestinians and their supporters fear the move will also legitimize Israeli settlements.

About 200,000 Jews live in several settlements in East Jerusalem. The world community, including Canada, considers the settlements illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

Palestinian leaders say Trump's move would also kill his efforts to bring peace to the region. Trump's son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, along with other officials, has made several trips to the Middle East to advance what Trump has said would be the "ultimate deal."

Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, said that in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, "it is not only going to promote international anarchy and disrespect for global institutions and law, but [the U.S.] will also be disqualifying itself to play any role in any initiative towards achieving a just and lasting peace."

What is the possible fallout?

There are worries that a change in the status quo over Jerusalem will spark protests by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, while U.S. embassies across the Muslim world could be a focal point for demonstrations.

While Israel's leaders welcome Trump's move, it's believed the country's security establishment is less enthusiastic.
Israel erected metal detectors outside several entrances to the al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount compound following the killing of two Israeli police officers near the site on July 14. (Reuters)

"They want [the recognition of Jerusalem] much less than the politicians, the cabinet members," said Menachem Klein, a political science professor at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. "The main interest of the Israeli security establishment, taking into consideration their government position, is to maintain the status quo, not to escalate their relations with the Palestinians."

Israeli police are preparing for the kind of demonstrations that often turned into violent clashes after protests broke out at the al-Aqsa Mosque in July. Israel had imposed new security measures at the compound, also known as the Temple Mount, following the killing of two Israeli policemen by Palestinian attackers. The situation was eventually defused when metal detectors and cameras were removed.

What have other U.S. presidents done?

Trump isn't the first U.S. president to suggest moving the American embassy. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made similar promises, but didn't follow through. 

Pressure from Egypt and the Arab League convinced Joe Clark to back down on his pledge to move the embassy in 1979. But Trump, who has pulled out of the Paris climate accords and promised an "America first" policy on many issues, has shown he's less swayed by international pressure.


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.