Comment: The colonial origins of US policy on Jerusalem

Any US attempt to move the embassy to Jerusalem should be coupled with a deeper consular commitment to the Palestinians.

Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount
US President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and chosen an ambassador who supports the move. Since 1995 the US president has been mandated to move the embassy, but the move has been put off due to national security.
Palestinian negotiator and politician Saeb Erekat said over the weekend on two occasions that moving the embassy would be the end of the peace process and threaten to unleash extremism and violence. Most of the world follows the US policy of refusing to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a policy which has its roots in colonialism.
Here is the real history: Several days before US president Franklin Roosevelt and UK prime minister Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter aboard the USS Augusta in 1941, they had a short discussion about imperialism. Elliot Roosevelt, son of the president, recalled in his 1946 book As He Saw It that his father was very critical of British colonialism.
“I speak as America’s president when I say that America won’t help England in this war simply so that she will be able to continue to ride roughshod over colonial peoples,” FDR said, according to the book.
Roosevelt told his son that all of England’s possessions would have to be discussed eventually. “Before we’re through [we’ll talk about] Burma, and Java, and all the African colonies. And Egypt and Palestine.”
Roosevelt was a keen believer in Woodrow Wilson’s concept of self-determination.
“We believe that any nationality, no matter how small, has the inherent right to its own nationhood,” he said at a White House press conference in 1941. The Atlantic Charter signed on August 14 and which still has influence today noted that the war should result in “sovereign rights and self-government” for people around the world.
When it came to British Palestine, FDR’s advisers recognized there was a problem.
Sumner Welles, foreign policy adviser and diplomat, thought “it was not feasible” to apply self-determination to Palestine. This was because the Jewish population was outnumbered by Arabs. FDR had exchanged letters with the Saudi king Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud regarding opposition to further Jewish immigration and settlement.
In December 1941, while FDR weighed his visceral dislike for colonialism and the fact that the Arab majority opposed British rule and saw Jews in Palestine as colonizers, the New Zionist Organization of Ze’ev Jabotinsky argued that the Atlantic Charter should be expanded to support Jewish rights. We now know that the war pre-empted all this. In April of 1945, just days before his death, FDR sent a letter to Ibn Saud in which he “made clear our desire that no decision be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country [Palestine] without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.” What we know is that FDR supported independence and local people being provided the right to decide.
FOR THE British, the future of Palestine was another matter. Their mandate, approved by the League of Nations in 1922, sought “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” In 1936 the UK sent a Royal Commission led by Lord Peel to Palestine to study how to partition it between Jews and Arabs. The commission came up with three plans, each of which foresaw Jerusalem under a continued British mandate. “The Partition of Palestine is subject to the overriding necessity of keeping the sanctity of Jerusalem and Bethlehem inviolate and of ensuring free and safe access to them for all the world,” the Peel Commission concluded.
“A new Mandate therefore should be framed with the execution of this trust as its primary purpose.” The plans didn’t merely include a small area around Jerusalem, but also Bethlehem, sometimes Ramallah and a finger of land stretching to the sea.
A version of the British partition plan was enshrined in the UN partition plan of November 1947 (resolution 181). “The city of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations.” Thus British colonial authority would pass to a UN colonial authority. The first UN municipal commissioner of Jerusalem was an American Quaker named Harold Evans, appointed on May 13, 1948. He arrived during the course of Israel’s War of Independence, where Jerusalem was a front line, and resigned his position, realizing utopian dreams of an international city were impossible.
Jerusalem on May 1, 1948. (Credit: Reuters)Jerusalem on May 1, 1948. (Credit: Reuters)
The first US ambassador to Israel, James McDonald, had served on the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry sent to Palestine in 1946. He was knowledgeable about the official US position that Jerusalem should be international but when he arrived he realized the fanciful concepts of demilitarization would never come to pass.
The UN passed a resolution in December 1949 restating its view that “Jerusalem should be placed under a permanent international regime.” McDonald was angered when the US State Department forbade him to attend the opening of the first Knesset in February 1949.
“As a ceremonial act, the Israel government had decided to hold the first meeting of the first Knesset in modern times in Jerusalem...If I were to go to Jerusalem to attend the function, that might be regarded as US tacit approval of the Israel claim to Jerusalem,” he recalled in 1951. Washington cabled the British and French, colonial powers, and asked what they thought, according to McDonald. They weren’t sending representatives, so Washington told McDonald to stay in Tel Aviv.
This policy continued under the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. A State Department memo of May 31, 1962, notes that, “On July 9, 1952, the Embassy at Tel Aviv handed an aide-mémoire to the Israel Government (enclosed) stating that the United States Government did not view favorably the transfer of the Israel Foreign Office to Jerusalem, and that there was no intention of transferring the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
The US decided the best course of action was this UN concept. McGeorge Bundy (special assistant for national security) advised John F. Kennedy in 1962 that the US should not “take any action to prejudice the United Nations interest in this question. Our objective is to keep the Jerusalem question an open one.” Bundy said that he hoped to prevent Jerusalem being partitioned by Jordan and Israel “through the processes of attrition and fait accompli to the exclusion of the international interest.”
State department official Lucius Battle noted at that the time that the US also sought to dissuade other countries from having embassies in Jerusalem. Nevertheless Guatemala, Venezuela, Ivory Coast and eight other countries opened missions in the holy city.
Up until 1967 the US policy was a direct inheritor of the colonial-era legacy that saw Jerusalem as either the rightful possession of the UK or of the UN, without asking its residents. This contravened FDR’s policy.
After 1967 when Israel conquered Jerusalem and the West Bank the main concern of Lyndon Johnson’s advisers was Arab anger over the status of the city. Adviser Bob Anderson told LBJ on July 6, 1967 that “the future of Jerusalem may be critical and truly explosive in the Middle East...capable of stirring mobs in streets to the point where the fate of our most moderate friends in the Middle East will be in jeopardy.”
There might be “holy war.” Bundy was more circumspect on July 31: “We can’t tell the Israelis to give things away to people who won’t even bargain with them.” The story about Jerusalem’s status setting the region aflame was still being peddled on July 17, 1974 when the CIA daily briefing brought president Richard Nixon warnings from Saudi Arabia about it.
From the 1980s, after Israel’s Jerusalem Law and the annexation of not only east Jerusalem but a wide swath around, the US continued its opposition to any change in “status” in Jerusalem. In the 1990s the Americans supported negotiations on the final status of the city, in a sense giving the Palestinians a veto over any chance Jerusalem would ever be recognized as the capital of Israel. Dennis Ross writes that during that period the idea was floated to include Abu Dis in the Jerusalem boundaries and thus allow for Palestinian institutions there to be part of the “capital” of Jerusalem, shared by both states. But even when it seemed clear the international custodianship concept for Jerusalem was dead, after 50 years, it was revived in 2000 at Camp David as a way to administer the Temple Mount.
For the past 16 years there has been no progress on the Jerusalem issue. Every discussion between the Palestinians and Israel still ends with Palestinian demands for a capital in the city and often with more Muslim claims to rights to the Western Wall, such that the overlapping claims are impossible to reconcile.
The problem with US policy is that it became intoxicated with the UN’s view of Jerusalem, which is based on the colonial- era concept that the international community has more rights to the city than the people that live in it. The partition plan was dripping with colonialism and yet remains in many ways the basis for discussions on the city. The unwillingness of the US to recognize Israel’s rights at least to west Jerusalem is rooted in that colonial past. It’s one thing for the US to refuse recognition of east Jerusalem as part of Israel, it’s another to still view the Knesset as existing on some international landscape.
This colonial history impacts Palestinians as well. There should be a US consulate in Ramallah to effectively provide Palestinians with services, so that they don’t have to beg for permission to visit Jerusalem just to attend consular events. Any US attempt to move the embassy to Jerusalem should be coupled with a deeper consular commitment to the Palestinians. FDR was right: local people should have self-determination and one should not rule over another without rights. At the very least, what was decided more than 70 years ago by Europeans should be discarded.

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