The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What is the real value of Jerusalem?

President Trump holds up a proclamation formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at White House on Dec. 6. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9263086u)
Placeholder while article actions load

The U.N. General Assembly on Thursday voted to rebuke the recent decision by President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. With an overwhelming 128 nations demanding that Washington reverse its decision, in defiance of President Trump’s last-minute threats to cut off aid, one would think that a bright new future is awaiting Palestinians – that the U.N. vote would finally usher in their much-awaited statehood.

But that’s unlikely. The vote is symbolic and non-binding.

And just like everything else about the Jerusalem saga, including Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the U.N. episode is more about the power of populism than about solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

There is an old photo hanging in my study, showing a stately middle-aged man in military uniform, with an impressive mustache, a fez, and a sword in front. That man is my great-grandfather and underneath the photo I have his fading business card:

“Mehmed Said, Commissaire en Chef de Police de Jerusalem”

The leading military cadres in the Ottoman Empire were mostly from the Balkans, like my maternal ancestors, and the Macedonian-born Mehmed Said was dispatched by the Sultan around the turn of the century to lead the Jerusalem Police. A great-aunt, who taught me a riddle about raindrops when I was very little, was called Kudsiye, on account of the fact that she was born during her father Mehmed Said’s tour in Jerusalem, that is, al-Quds in Arabic.

All of this should naturally make me more passionate about the Jerusalem saga unleashed by Trump’s move – but it doesn’t. For starters, my family had no real connection to that city and Jerusalem’s fall to the British during World War I was, in part, due to Arab tribes siding with the British against the Ottomans, in spite of Islamic solidarity and centuries of Ottoman reign. The city may have been a coveted symbol for more than 1,000 years, but modern Turkey consciously turned its back on the endless squabbles of the Middle East for the sake of a secular nation-state.

With chaos and sectarian wars raging across the region, Jerusalem is hardly a real geostrategic conflict today. But it is a convenient narrative tool for everyone.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Conference of Islamic Countries for an emergency summit in Istanbul and recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Ankara also pushed hard for Thursday’s U.N. decision —  the outcome will be seen as a huge achievement for Erdogan at home at a time when he is being slammed by the West for his authoritarian domestic conduct.

But I doubt either the Istanbul summit or the U.N. vote will amount to much in terms of Palestinian lives. Muslims consider Jerusalem a holy place, but over decades repressive Arab regimes have done very little – other than perennial condemnation of Israel – to help Palestinians realize their dreams of an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. The U.N. vote will not change their predicament.

The problem with Trump’s decision is not so much in what he did but what he didn’t do –his failure to back up a radical move by a peace plan for Palestinians. The White House decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel seems to be driven by a desire to satisfy domestic constituencies. It does not appear to be part of a master plan –just a careless one-off move.

There is something deeply insincere when it comes to Middle Eastern posturing on Jerusalem too. The only real path towards a Palestinian state remains a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital. If the 48 Muslim nations who took part in the Istanbul summit are serious about the plight of Palestinians, or the status of Jerusalem, next time they sit with Trump, they could demand a return to the Middle East talks as the top item on their agenda.

But I doubt any of them will. Jerusalem might have symbolic power, but it has little strategic value for Arab regimes. In reality, most Arab regimes like the situation as it is: a frozen conflict with no consequences but useful to rile up masses. For regional leaders, when they sit with Trump, the priority is bilateral relations with the United States (or even Israel), defense deals, and sectarian politics – not Palestinians.

Jerusalem itself is in a knot. The competing historic narratives between Jews, Christians and Muslims about the sanctity of the city have been embellished over decades of political rivalry – and still frustrate political compromises. These myths have played a role in galvanizing the evangelical Americans behind Trump’s decision – as well as motivating Erdogan’s conservative base in Turkey.

But even though Jerusalem has religious meaning for Jews, Christians and Muslims, its salvation rests in a secular world. The blueprint for a road map towards peace is still a worldly give-and-take. That map has gathered dust on the shelves for more than a decade. Neither Washington nor the Middle East regimes have shown a real interest in the art of the deal when it comes to the Middle East peace process.

During my visits to Jerusalem, I have been struck by its beauty and light – but not its mysticism. With an imposing decor and a cast of characters that seem to have jumped right out of history books, the old city of Jerusalem can be slightly suffocating. Its array of competing claims is overwhelming.

The real power of the city is in its ability to provide a good story – of justice, injustice, suffering and might – to different groups of people. Jerusalem is neither a game changer nor the solution to the chaos in the region. It’s a convenient narrative instrument for regimes, and for populist leaders like Erdogan and Trump.

And sadly, that seems good enough for everyone at the moment.