When President Donald Trump recently recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and promised to move the U.S. embassy there, Israelis celebrated by projecting a powerful symbol on an old stone wall in Jerusalem — the American and Israeli flags, together as one.
That image proclaimed what the rest of the world has known for a long time: The U.S. is not the honest broker needed in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
Trump’s unilateral decision to grant Israelis’ desire for formal recognition of Jerusalem as their capital comes 100 years after another incendiary move by a great power — the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Israelis regard the Balfour Declaration as the foundation stone of their country’s legitimacy. Others regard it as an act of British imperialist hubris that American politicians of both parties seem determined to surpass.
With his signature ignorance of history, Trump has bookended Balfour, figuratively scrawling a crude orange smiley face and giant exclamation point on the infamous document.
A hundred years ago, while Britain was mired in World War I, the young movement known as Zionism was encouraging Europe’s Jews to start colonies in Palestine. The Zionists envisioned turning all of Palestine into a majority Jewish state — a plan that disregarded the existence of those who already lived there, the Arabs of Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration was a short letter written by Lord Balfour, the British foreign secretary, to Lord Rothschild, a British Zionist. The letter expressed the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The letter also contained an often-overlooked caveat conditioning Britain’s support on “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine ... .”
Palestine at the time was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, soon to be defeated in the war. The allied victors awarded Britain control of Palestine, and the Zionist colonial enterprise accelerated under the watchful, helpful eyes of the British military. Whether all of the consequences of Balfour’s letter were intended or not, the caveat about not harming the rights of non-Jews in Palestine was mostly ignored.
Several weeks ago, I visited Balfour’s ground zero, Jerusalem. There, at the Anglican Cathedral Church of St. George, once the religious home of British rulers in Palestine, the congregation was planning to commemorate the Balfour centennial. It would be no celebration. Rather, they planned to ask the British government to repent for Balfour and finally make good on the document’s caveat about the rights of Palestine’s “non-Jewish communities.”
Completed in 1899, at the peak of the British Empire, St. George’s was the church of the bureaucrats and military officials based in Jerusalem to secure the empire’s interests. Those interests culminated in the fraught history of the 26-year British Mandate of Palestine.
Immediately after the British departure in 1948, the Zionist government-in-waiting declared the founding of the state of Israel. But what Israelis proudly remember as their independence day, Palestinian Arabs remember as their Nakba or catastrophe. Palestinian Arabs were victims of at least 31 massacres; 531 Palestinian villages were destroyed; and 750,000 Arabs were driven from the country or fled in fear, never to be allowed to return. Then, in 1967, the Israelis captured and occupied the rest of historic Palestine, including East Jerusalem.
The United Nations has long viewed Jerusalem — a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike — as so sensitive it should be under international control. Fifty years ago, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 242, directing Israel to withdraw its forces from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. Yet Israel refuses to withdraw from most of the territories it occupied in 1967, and it aggressively continues to build permanent, Jewish-only communities in the occupied West Bank — 150 settlements and 100 outposts, as of this year, with additional Palestinian land being confiscated for future expansion.
U.N. officials estimate that there are at least 600,000 Jewish settlers living among 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, and their numbers continue to grow. All of this contravenes the 1949 Geneva Convention prohibiting an occupying power from transferring its civilian population to an occupied territory.
From the Israeli point of view, the settlements are “facts on the ground” to be eventually annexed to Israel. The status of Jerusalem has previously been portrayed as one of the last issues to be negotiated in some elusive final peace agreement. But Israel’s aggressive settlement building in East Jerusalem makes clear that Israel has no intention of giving up East Jerusalem to accommodate Palestinians’ hopes of having their own capital there.
Now Trump has made it clear that the U.S. government stands with Israel on the status of Jerusalem, emboldening Israeli expansionists and devastating Palestinians. He has made it clear to everyone that in the 70-year-old conflict, our country is part of the problem, not the solution.
Like the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Trump Declaration of 2017 is almost certain to result in greater injustice for the Palestinians, no just peace for Israelis and a future of regret for the American people.
Mary Christine Bader is a writer in Wayzata.