The 1662 Book of Common Prayer translates Psalm 122 more elegantly even than the King James Bible. “Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity in itself.” Hubert Parry set those words to music in 1902 for the investiture of King Edward VII, and his gorgeous anthem has been sung at every subsequent British Coronation.
But Jerusalem has rarely been “at unity in itself,” and it certainly is not today. Neither the dazzling Anglican hymn, nor Thomas Cranmer’s baroque translation, nor, indeed, the original Hebrew words bear much relation to contemporary reality.
The status of Jerusalem isn’t part of the Israel-Palestine dispute. It is the Israel-Palestine dispute. Everything else might be resolved by negotiation. A border could be agreed that took account of demographic reality, probably involving land swaps. A compromise could be reached on the right of return, perhaps offering compensation to those whose theoretical right was not a practical reality. Steps could be taken to ensure the security of both sides. But the City of David, Al Quds to Muslims, remains the nub of the quarrel.
Hence the rage over President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy there. When we consider the frequency with which the region is cursed by terrorism and war, the movement of a few dozen diplomatic personnel to a piece of land in West Jerusalem which will, in any conceivable final deal, remain Israeli, seems disproportionate.
After all, it is normal diplomatic practice to allow states to designate their own capitals, and to situate foreign legations in those designated capitals. Israelis have considered Jerusalem their capital since 1949, and, like the Psalmist, have declared it indivisible. That position was also taken by the U.S. Congress in 1995. Barack Obama told an AIPAC meeting in 2008: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided”.
So, what has Trump done that is such a radical departure? True, he has isolated the U.S. from most of the rest of the world; but, frankly, on the issue of Israel, that was already the case.
The more serious charge against him is that he has made a peace settlement harder to achieve. Jerusalem was always going to be the final piece in the jigsaw. If agreement could be reached on all the other issues, and confidence between the two sides increased, maybe some imaginative way out of the most intractable real estate dispute on the planet might present itself. By anticipating the territorial outcome, the argument runs, Trump has made life tougher for the negotiators.
There is some truth in this, but we should keep a sense of perspective. Lining up behind the Israeli position on Jerusalem hardly precludes a two-state solution. Three times in recent years, Israel has offered Palestinians an independent territory which included a share of Jerusalem: in 2000 (to Yasser Arafat) and in 2001 and 2008 (to Mahmoud Abbas).
Jerusalem is not the city it was in the time Jesus, let alone that of Solomon. Those earlier Jerusalems have been (as Jesus sadly prophesied) razed to the ground. The heart of the dispute these days concerns one walled enclave within a noisy modern metropolis. Even within that enclave, there are already imaginative ways in which the claims of different religions coexist. It is the status of the Dome of the Rock on the ruins of the ancient Temple, considered in Medieval times to be the center of the world, that remains the center of the conflict.
That dispute remains as far from resolution as ever. But no one has proposed moving the U.S. embassy to the Old City. West Jerusalem’s status as a seat of government, containing the Knesset and the government ministries, is not in dispute. Shifting foreign representation to where that government operates hardly makes a deal impossible.
The more subtle criticism of Trump’s decision is that the supposedly great deal maker has offered this big symbolic gesture in return for nothing. A card like moving the embassy, which can be played only once, should not be tossed onto the table cheaply. It should certainly not be used simply because domestic headlines are unhelpful, and a distraction is timely.
Perhaps secret undertakings were made by the Netanyahu government which will come to light later, but it seems unlikely. An opportunity to use the embassy move to push the peace process along appears to have been squandered — which really is a pity.
“O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: They shall prosper that love thee.”
Daniel Hannan, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a British member of the European Parliament.