‘‘Would you ever give up Jerusalem, Mrs. Meir?” “No. Never. No. Not Jerusalem. Jerusalem never. Totally unacceptable. Jerusalem is out of the question. We won’t even discuss Jerusalem”. In this peremptory exchange between Oriana Fallaci and Israel’s historic leader Golda Meir, which took place in 1972, one can catch a glimpse of the many unresolved issues surrounding the Middle Eastern conflict.

In truth, the Israeli prime minister reached such an unwavering conclusion after underlining a fundamental issue in the same interview. She referred to the partition of Palestine in 1947 (until then under British control) on the basis of which, according to the dictates of UN resolution 181, “the City of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separatum(“separate entity”) under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations”. This agreement was accepted by the Jewish side but refused by the Arabs, a situation which led to a conflict in 1948. That conflict was only the first in a long line at the end of which Jerusalem ended up splitting in two: one sector to the east under Jordanian control and the rest in the hands of the Israelis.

In 1967, the Six Day War wrote a decisive chapter in Middle Eastern relations. Israel defeated a coalition of Arab states (made up of Egypt, Jordan and Syria) and took over the entire city. The situation has essentially remained unchanged since then, even though this new arrangement has never been acknowledged or accepted by the international community. Over time, however, the idea of dividing Jerusalem in two so that the eastern part could become the hypothetical capital of a Palestinian state has faded into the background. And peace talks over the past few years, moreover, have been going nowhere. In the meantime, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has relentlessly pursued its policy of bolstering Jewish settlements in Jerusalem. It is in this context that US President Donald Trump made the disruptive decision to ultimately acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a policy ratified by announcing the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem around the time that Israel will be celebrating its 70th anniversary (14 May 2018). The White House’s decision has triggered outrage in many of the world’s chancelleries and capitals which had never previously officially recognised the Israeli occupation of the holy city. But Trump’s gamble seems to be paying off because it has essentially put an end to a lengthy dispute, one that finally has an outright victor: Israel. Time will tell whether the final word has actually been pronounced on the matter. In the meantime, however, the Palestinians and a number of Muslim leaders and politicians have turned to a very respected authority and asked it to speak its mind on the matter.

That authority is the Holy See. Pope Francis and Vatican diplomats as a whole immediately reacted to Washington’s announcement in the belief that it would have serious repercussions on a number of Christian churches which had called Jerusalem home for many centuries. In an article published in Civiltà Cattolica last January, Jesuit priest David Neuhaus wrote: “For Jews, Christians and Muslims, Jerusalem is much more than a mere geographic location or a social and political entity. It’s a sacred space, where the revelation of God by God himself has developed over the generations. As direct descendants of ancient Israel, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to Jerusalem and devotedly worship their respective holy sites standing within the city walls”.

This approach has historically been a constant of Vatican diplomacy, which has always backed the idea that Jerusalem should receive special consideration. The Vatican initially agreed to the principle of a city as a corpus separatum placed under the aegis of the UN (Pius XII was particularly partial to this solution). But more recently, and as part of more practical negotiations, the Holy See has called for an “internationally guaranteed special statute” to be granted to the city given the great value that the three main monotheist religions assign to Jerusalem. In other words, guaranteeing access to the holy sites while retaining a strong independence and presence of Christian institutions and communities has clearly been important priority for the Catholic Church in Rome for some time. On the other hand, the most recent popes (and particularly from John Paul II onwards) have earned a reputation as honest brokers thanks to their efforts to promote dialogue among the various religious traditions, cultures and nations even in the toughest circumstances and particularly in the Middle East and the Holy Land.

Thus it was almost automatic that heads of state and religious leaders should turn to the Holy See in such a delicate predicament to ask the Pope to take a strong stand. Pope Francis has not backed down from the new role assigned to him and has become the leader of an unprecedented international faction while at the same time working to protect the interests of the Catholic Church. That explains why the day after Trump announced his decision last December, the pope stated that a general hearing had been called. “Jerusalem is a unique city, sacred to the Jews, the Christians and Muslims, who worship the holy places of the various religions, and it has a special vocation for peace”, Pope Francis said. “I pray to the Lord that this identity will be retained and bolstered for the benefit of the Holy Land, the Middle East, and the world as a whole”.

In recent months, Francis has become a point of reference on the Jerusalem issue for the Sunni alAzhar University in Cairo, headed by the great imam Ahmed al Tayeb. He maintains an excellent relationship with the Holy See. An understanding has also effectively been established with Iran and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as usual had very harsh words to say about Trump’s decision. But what’s more, the Holy See has also registered a shared point of view on the matter with both the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin. It should also be noted that the Vatican and Kremlin diplomatic corps have been working on a papal visit to Moscow for some time. Further credence was given to this effort by the visit of the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to the Russian capital last August.

On the opposite front in Ankara, the Jerusalem factor has already produced a very significant event: Erdogan’s audience with the Vatican, which took place on 5 February. It’s worth noting that no Turkish president had visited the Vatican since 1959. The focus of discussions between the two leaders was clearly the Middle Eastern crisis, “with particular reference”, according to a Vatican press release, “to the status of Jerusalem, highlighting the need to promote peace and stability in the region through talks and negotiations, with full respect for human rights and international law”. In this context, international law was meant to infer all of the various UN resolutions that have so far not acknowledged Israel’s jurisdiction over the entire city of Jerusalem.

Then again, if one looks at things from the Americans’ perspective, there is a significant precedent that needs to be taken into account which could make Trump’s decision not as rash as it might have first appeared. As it turns out, in 1995 the United States Congress approved the Jerusalem Embassy Act, with which the United States undertook to transfer their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus acknowledging the latter as Israel’s capital. Since then, however, US presidents have always postponed the move in order to avoid obstructing peace talks. In other words, it would seem that with this move, the US president is essentially taking stock of the fact that after the many failed attempts negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis are finished.

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