The flurry of diplomacy and talk of war in recent weeks by the United States, Iran and Israel has overshadowed what has been a central issue in the Middle East for more than four decades - the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
And always central to that endeavor has been a solution to one of the thorniest problems in
all of diplomacy - the status of Jerusalem, the ancient city holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Nations and empires of the East and West have fought over the city for more than 2,000 years, but in modern times, these struggles have focused on competing claims to Jerusalem by Israelis and Palestinians.
For both sides, the status of Jerusalem is one of the core issues in the search for a lasting overall peace settlement.
Israeli forces captured the western sector of Jerusalem during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Jordan controlled the eastern sector of Jerusalem until the 1967 Six-Day war when Israelis forces captured it as well and united the city.
Since then, the international community, including the United States, has considered East Jerusalem to be occupied territory whose fate is to be determined by peace negotiations.
Israel has proclaimed Jerusalem as its eternal, undivided capital city. But Palestinians, in their push to establish an independent Palestinian nation, want East Jerusalem back as its capital.
To stress their neutrality on the issue, nations that have diplomatic relations with Israel have all established their embassies in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem.
U.S. Campaign Issue
But Newt Gingrich, a candidate for the Republican Party’s U.S. presidential nomination, wants to change that. Recently, he brought up the question of Jerusalem during an address to an American pro-Israeli organization.
“On the very first day I am president, I will sign the Executive Order to move the American embassy to Jerusalem,” Gingrich told a convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton agrees with Gingrich on the issue.
“Obviously you would have to consult with the government of Israel,” Bolton told VOA. “We want to do this in a sensible fashion, but it’s hard for me to understand why the U.S. embassy isn’t in a country’s capital city.”
Alon Ben-Meir, a Middle East expert at New York University, says Gingrich’s position on Jerusalem is clearly designed to win the votes of American Jews in his quest for the presidency.
“If he becomes president, which is not likely at this juncture, he is probably not going to move the embassy anyway,” Ben Meir said in an interview, adding that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had made similar statements at one point or another.
“But they haven’t [moved the embassy] - because when they are in the White House and they understand the repercussions of such a move - because this is going to alienate the Arab world - and the United States does not want to alienate the whole Arab world only for symbolic reasons,” Ben Meir said.
Muslim Interests Weighed
Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert with the London School of Economics, agrees, noting that a sitting president has to deal with the complexities of U.S. foreign policy.
“This [embassy move] would be truly a major move on the part of the United States,” Gerges told VOA, adding that it could harm American interests throughout the region and the larger Muslim world.
“The whole idea is that the United States does not move its embassy to Jerusalem ‘till there is a peace agreement and both communities, both identities, have their own capital in Jerusalem - East Jerusalem for the Palestinians and West Jerusalem for the Jewish people,” Gerges concluded.
But most analysts agree that such a diplomatic solution is not likely any time soon, given the fact that the Middle East peace process is at a standstill and no progress is expected during a presidential election year in the United States.