Jerusalem might be the capital of Israel, but the United States is still hard pressed to say that it is actually part of the State of Israel.
“What country is Jerusalem in?” Associated Press reporter Matt Lee asked acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs David Satterfield last Thursday at a press briefing in Washington.
To Israelis, his question might be akin to asking if the sky was blue. But Lee was not being facetious.
It was only one day after President Donald Trump’s dramatic announcement that the US Embassy would be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Still, Satterfield did not respond to Lee with the simple one word answer: Israel.
Instead he explained, “The president [on December 6] recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.”
Lee pressed on, asking if the US “officially recognized” that Jerusalem was part of Israel.
Satterfield clarified during the briefing that Trump’s statement did not mean that US policy had shifted with regard to Israeli sovereignty over the city.
“We are not changing or taking a position on the boundaries of sovereignty in Jerusalem,” Satterfield said.
His careful answer spoke to a 70-year diplomatic dance that the US and the larger international community has been doing with Israel with regard to the status of Jerusalem.
In the absence of a peace process, the international community regards east Jerusalem as part of “occupied Palestine” but is not willing to recognize Israeli sovereignty over west Jerusalem.
At issue is not the 50-year old question, asked since the Six Day War, of a united Jerusalem in Israeli hands or a divided city, with west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and a future Palestinian one in east Jerusalem.
Instead it goes to the heart of a more basic 70-year old question – asked since before Israel declared independence in 1948 – of whether Israel in modern times has a connection to the city that was the capital of the Biblical Jewish state and where its holiest site, the Jewish Temple, once stood. The Palestinians have been particularly blunt in rejecting this connection.
“Israel has annexed both parts of Jerusalem, west and east,” first in 1948 and then in 1967, said PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi.
It is “crazy” in the year 2017 “to determine geopolitical realities on the basis of 3,000 years ago,” Ashrawi said. Any potential Israeli sovereignty in the city could only be determined through negotiations, she said.
World leaders and dignitaries have been more vague and polite. For decades they have visited Jerusalem, shaking hands with its prime ministers and presidents.
No fewer than three former US presidents – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George Bush – have addressed the Knesset. Former US president Barack Obama delivered a eulogy for his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, at the city’s Mount Herzl Cemetery.
But on a policy level, since 1947, the international community has questioned Israeli sovereignty over the western section of the city.
Israel is reminded of Jerusalem’s shaky international status every time the UN General Assembly or another UN body, such as UNESCO , approves a resolution disavowing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem
Some 151 nations, with the support of Europe, approved such a General Assembly resolution just last month.
All of the 87 foreign governments with embassies in Israel have placed them in Tel Aviv and the surrounding areas. The US opened its embassy there in 1966, a year before the Six Day War.
The confusion over Jerusalem’s status dates in particular to 1947, when the United Nations excluded Jerusalem from its partition plan, known as General Assembly Resolution 181, which divided land into territories for both a Jewish state and an Arab one.
Under an idea called corpus separatum (Latin for separate entity), Resolution 181 placed an expanded Jerusalem region under international custodianship.
It set boundaries of an internationalized Jerusalem region, that is much larger then today’s municipal lines: “The most eastern of which shall be Abu Dis; the most southern, Bethlehem; the most western, Ein Kerem (including also the builtup area of Motza); and the most northern Shuafat.”
The UN never implemented Resolution 181 because the Arab armies immediately attacked Israel.
Following the War of Independence, the UN General Assembly accepted Israel as a member state on May 11, 1949, under Resolution 273. It was a move affirmed by the UN Security Council in October of that year.
Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion decreed that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. But Israel at the time held only the western section of the city, while Jordan held the eastern part and forbade entrance to Israelis, even to the Old City where the Western Wall was located.
The UN largely accepted Israeli sovereignty over territory set by the armistice lines of the war, but refrained from doing so with regard to Jerusalem, passing a number of resolutions – 194 and 303 – that still spoke to an international custodianship over Jerusalem.
That idea seemed to fade after the Six Day War, when Israel acquired all of Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. Israel placed the West Bank under IDF military rule but went about annexing Jerusalem. In 1980, the Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law, formalizing Israeli sovereignty over a united Jerusalem.
The UN Security Council condemned the move. Over time the UN texts increasingly clarified that Jerusalem was part of the “occupied Palestinian” territories and persistently refused to recognize any change to the ‘67 lines, unless agreed to by both parties. The latest such document was the December 2016 Security Council Resolution 2334
Save for some isolated plans, the idea of an internationalized Jerusalem has fallen to the wayside of a larger global consensus that Jerusalem will be a divided city, serving as independent capitals of both an Israeli and a Palestinian state.
But the international community has still withheld formal recognition of any Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Just last Friday, ambassadors from five countries – Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, France and Italy – told reporters they rejected Trump’s declaration.
“The status of Jerusalem,” they said, “must be determined through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, leading to a final-status agreement.”
But when it came to east Jerusalem, they stated, “We consider east Jerusalem as part of the occupied Palestinian territories.”
This spring, Russia took the dramatic step of recognizing west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, becoming the first country to do so.
The Czech Republic followed the US’s lead and did so last week.
But neither envision moving their embassies to Jerusalem.
The US has long taken a middle of the road approach to Jerusalem, rejecting many UN resolutions on the city, including those defining it as “occupied territory.” In 1994 The New York Times
reported that former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, then the country’s UN ambassador, said that calling Jerusalem “occupied Palestine” territory implied Palestinian sovereignty.
But there was no subsequent State Department or White House recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Under the Obama administration, the US more bluntly stated that Jerusalem was not in Israel.
Congress had no such ambiguity. In 1995 they passed the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act, which recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s united capital and called for the embassy to be relocated there. Congress’s 2002 Foreign Relations Act also required the US to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, including in government documents. But the US Supreme Court struck down the act in 2015.
Trump’s statement, while it failed to recognize a united Jerusalem, marks the first time a US president has acknowledged what Ben-Gurion stated so long ago: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.
“Through all of these years, presidents representing the United States have declined to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In fact, we have declined to acknowledge any Israeli capital at all,” Trump said last week.
“But today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done,” Trump said.
Former ambassador to the UN Dore Gold said that Trump’s statement of affirmation linking Jerusalem to Israel was a death knell to the idea of an internationalized Jerusalem.
All this time, Resolution 181 has hovered in the background and has not died, Gold said.
“For five decades now, Palestinians have contemplated going back to proposals for the internationalization of Jerusalem – and have made proposals to that effect in various bodies, like the UN,” Gold said.
“President Trump’s assertion that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, first and foremost, constitutes a major blow to that unrealistic kind of thinking,” Gold said. He added, “It puts the corpus separatism into the historical archives.”