Why the US embassy move to Jerusalem is so controversial

Decision upends decades of US diplomacy and threatens to spark unrest in Middle East

Netanyahu Trump
Donald Trump with Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Israel last year
(Image credit: Kobi Gideon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner are in Israel for the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem today.

The embassy’s move from Tel Aviv is being celebrated by Israel but has triggered overwhelming global opposition. So what is the root of this conflict?

Why is Jerusalem so contentious?

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Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the US and most other nations have not recognised any country’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

The Israeli government claims Jerusalem as its capital, but the Palestinian National Authority (PA) considers East Jerusalem to be Palestinian territory, illegally occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Israel has built more than a dozen settlements in East Jerusalem, with an estimated 200,000 Jews living there, but the United Nations Security Council considers this to be an occupied Palestinian territory.

The US and other countries therefore kept their embassies in Tel Aviv in order to avoid inflaming tensions or undermining future negotiations over the city’s status.

What is Trump’s aim?

The US president’s supporters believe that an official recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital could be a building block towards a peace agreement.

Upending almost seven decades of American foreign policy, Trump announced last December: “We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians. The United States would support a two state solution if agreed to by both sides.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants other countries to follow America’s lead, “because it’s the right thing to do”.

Addressing dignitaries at the Israeli Foreign Ministry yesterday, Netanyahu said: “Move your embassies to Jerusalem because it advances peace, and that’s because you can’t base peace on a foundation of lies.”

How has the world reacted?

“Most of Europe has vehemently opposed the US embassy move,” says The Times. “Only four EU countries have broken ranks and decided to send ambassadors to today’s inauguration - Austria, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary.”

Of the 86 countries with diplomatic missions in Israel invited to the event, only 33 confirmed they would attend.

The Israel Defence Forces are expecting today to be “one of the most violent days in Gaza” since protests against the US embassy move began at the end of March, adds the newspaper.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has described the move as the “slap of the century”.

Professor Yossi Mekelberg, from Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, told The Independent: “Jerusalem is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians; it is one of the most sensitive places on planet Earth. Any change to the status quo is explosive and incendiary.”

The ramifications could also be felt further afield: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to cut diplomatic ties with the US, while Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has said that “such a dangerous step is likely to inflame the passions of Muslims around the world”.

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