Dr. Jim Denison: Should the U.S. Declare Jerusalem the Capital of Israel?

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Should the US declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel?
Dr. Jim Denison | December 7, 2017
NOTE: Given the complexity and significance of today’s subject, this Daily Article is longer than usual.

“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” President Trump announced yesterday. After his statement, Palestinian protesters burned photos of the president in Gaza City. By contrast, the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City were lit with the colors of the American and Israeli flags.

Why is this such a controversial and divisive issue?

I have been to the Holy Land more than twenty times. Each time, I am amazed again by the complexities surrounding Jerusalem, the religious capital of more than half the world’s population.

Rather than make a case for one position, I will survey the history of the Holy City and briefly outline the various arguments on this divisive issue. Then I will ask you to join me in a commitment to two principles that transcend controversy and advance God’s Kingdom.

An introduction to Jerusalem

Jerusalem has been continuously inhabited for almost six thousand years. Three millennia ago, it was captured by King David and made the capital of his kingdom (2 Samuel 5:6–10). His son Solomon built his palace and the first temple there (1 Kings 6–7).

Babylon destroyed the city and its temple in 586 BC; they were rebuilt after the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great liberated the Jews in 538 BC. King Herod enlarged the temple and city greatly, but both were destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Emperor Hadrian rebuilt the city in AD 129–30, naming it Aelia Capitolina. When Constantine became emperor, he changed the name back to Jerusalem in AD 324.

In AD 614, the Persian army conquered the city and destroyed most of its churches. Muslims called the city “el-Quds,” meaning “the holy.” They believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from a rock in Jerusalem known as the Foundation Stone. (Jews believe this rock is where the creation of the world began and was the location of their temple.) In AD 691, Muslims completed the famous Dome of the Rock over this location. It is the third-holiest site in the world to Muslims (next to Mecca and Medina, the places of the Prophet’s birth and death).

The Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque comprise the Temple Mount. The structure enclosing this elevated area on its western side is the famous Western Wall or Wailing Wall. Jews are not permitted to pray on the Temple Mount, so this Wall is their place of prayer closest to where their temple once stood. It is therefore the holiest site on earth to them.

Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in AD 1099 but surrendered it to the Muslim general Saladin in 1187. Ottoman Turks took over in 1517, rebuilding walls around the city. This enclosed area is known today as the “Old City.” It is only .35 square miles in size, with a population of approximately 35,000 people, and is located in what is known as East Jerusalem. The larger city of Jerusalem is home to more than 857,000 Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Jerusalem in the modern era

During World War I, the British army captured the city in 1917. Jerusalem remained under British rule until 1948, when they withdrew from Palestine and Israel declared independence. The new State of Israel gained control of West Jerusalem. However, East Jerusalem came under the control of Jordan, which denied Jews access to their holy sites, many of which were destroyed or desecrated.

During the 1967 Six-Day War, Jewish forces regained East Jerusalem. Jewish and Christian access to the holy sites was restored. Israel left the Temple Mount under the jurisdiction of an Islamic authority (the waqf) but opened the Western Wall to Jews.

To this day, Palestinians regard East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Since 1950, all branches of the Israeli government (except the Ministry of Defense) have resided in West Jerusalem. In 1980, Israel declared Jerusalem to be its “complete and united” capital.

In response, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 478 ruled this declaration a violation of international law and called on UN member states to withdraw their diplomats from the city. All twenty-four countries that had their embassy in West Jerusalem eventually moved them to Tel Aviv, where eighty embassies now reside.

However, in 1995 the United States Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, requiring that the American embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all signed waivers delaying this move every six months, citing security concerns. The US took the position that the final determination of Jerusalem should be part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace resolution.

What the president announced

Yesterday, President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced a plan to move the American embassy there. He also signed a waiver delaying the move another six months. White House officials explained that the waiver decision was necessary since it would take several years to move the embassy.

The president noted in his remarks that the Jerusalem Embassy Act was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress and was reaffirmed by unanimous Senate vote six months ago. Presidents have delayed the move in a desire to advance peace. However, according to the president, “After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement 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.”

The president noted that Jerusalem is the seat of the modern Israeli government. He therefore considers his announcement “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” However, he made clear that “this decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement.” He also voiced his support for a two-state solution and called on all parties to “maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites.”

Arguments for this decision

At least four assertions are being made in support of the president’s decision.

One: It recognizes reality.

Nearly all the agencies of Israel’s government reside in Jerusalem. For this reason, Russia recently recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Is Israel to be the only nation in the world that is not permitted to choose its own capital?

Two: It strengthens Israel’s claim to Jerusalem.

On December 23, 2016, the United Nations Security Council adoptedResolution 2334, calling on Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.” The US chose to abstain, allowing the resolution to become international law.

This resolution affected not only settlements in the West Bank but also historically Jewish sites such as the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The UN resolution forbids renovation or even maintenance of these areas.

UNSC 2334 is part of a larger attempt to undermine Jewish ties to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The “Temple Denial” movement claims that no Jewish temple ever existed in Jerusalem. Last week, the UN General Assembly voted one hundred and fifty-one to six (with nine nations abstaining) to adopt another resolution disavowing Israeli ties to Jerusalem.

UN bodies have adopted eighteen resolutions against Israel so far this year. In response, the president’s announcement lends America’s support to Israel’s solidarity with its capital city.

Three: It does not change the status quo in East Jerusalem.

The American embassy will be in West Jerusalem, an area that has been under Israeli sovereignty since its independence in 1948. The status of East Jerusalem will still be resolved through the peace process as before.

Four: It refuses to bow to the threat of terrorism.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz responded to the danger of terrorism: “No American decision should ever be influenced by the threat of violence. Terrorists should not have a veto over American policy. If the United States were to give in to threat of violence, it would only incentivize others to threaten violence in response to any peace plan.”

Arguments against this decision

At least three assertions are being made in opposition to the president’s decision.

One: It escalates the threat of violence.

Some commentators believe that the president’s statement will not provoke significant violence. Others claim the Arab world is less centered on the Palestinian cause than in the past.

However, King Abdullah II of Jordan fears that the move could be exploited by terrorists to stoke anger in the region. Saudi Arabia has condemned the plan for this reason; Turkish President Erdogan threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Israel as a result.

The patriarchs and heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem issued a statement warning that this step “will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive divisions.” The US State Department is reportedly bracing for violence at its consulates and embassies as a result of the announcement.

Two: It could undermine the peace process.

A statement from the Palestine Liberation Organization claimed that the US will be “disqualifying itself to play any role in any initiative towards achieving a just and lasting peace” and will “contribute to the further destabilization of the region.” The president’s announcement might limit the ability of moderate Arab states such as Jordan to support a peace process initiated by the US. It could force Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to walk away from the peace process at a time when his leadership is vital to its success.

Three: The timing is not right.

The president has stated that his administration is working on a plan for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Some argue that yesterday’s announcement should have been part of this process.

Conclusion: What we should all agree on

Whether we agree or disagree with the president’s decision, we should all agree on two biblical facts.

One: Jesus is the only hope for lasting peace.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is difficult to resolve in part because both peoples lay claim to the same holy sites. After millennia of animosity between Jews and Arabs, distrust is deep and difficult to overcome. But Muslims around the world are turning to Christ in unprecedented numbers, many after seeing visions and dreams of Jesus. And missionaries to the Middle East tell me that remarkable numbers of Jews are making Jesus their Messiah as well.

We are all sinners in need of a Savior (Romans 10:13). True peace comes only from the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:7). We should intercede daily for spiritual awakening in this conflicted region of the world.

Two: We must “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). This is a present-tense imperative for all believers.

Have you obeyed God’s command yet today?

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Jim Denison’s Daily Article
Jim Denison, Ph.D., speaks and writes on cultural and contemporary issues. He produces a daily column which is distributed to more than 113,000 subscribers in 203 countries. He also writes for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian PostCommon Call, and other publications.
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