With all the pomp and circumstance of US President Joe Biden’s visit and the enthusiasm over Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli commercial flights, one element of this busy diplomatic weekend has not received as much attention: Jerusalem.
Without saying a word about it, Biden made a nuanced change from his predecessor in Washington’s view on Israel’s capital.
As with all diplomatic visits, most of the action took place in Jerusalem, which Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog made sure to call Israel’s “eternal capital” in their remarks at different events with Biden.
Notably, they did not call Jerusalem Israel’s “undivided capital,” as their predecessors often did – which is just as well, because Biden seemed determined to divide the city, if not in his words, then in his actions and policies.
The president has said since his election campaign that he would maintain the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Trump’s recognition came without specific municipal borders, but it downgraded the Palestinians in the city, shuttering the consulate and subordinating it to the new US Israel Embassy in Jerusalem – even if in practice the staff continues doing what it has always done in the same building on Agron Street in western Jerusalem, up the block from the Waldorf Astoria where Biden held a press conference on Thursday.
The Biden administration has been trying to reopen the consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem for the past year, while Israel has refused to allow it on the grounds that the city is the capital of only one nation. In lieu of reopening the consulate, the State Department recently upgraded it from the Palestinian Affairs Unit to the US Office of Palestinian Affairs, which answers directly to Washington.
East Jerusalem visit
Weeks before Biden flew to Israel, word of his plan to visit a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem made waves in Israel. The president did not want any Israelis accompanying him on that trip.
On Friday, when “the Beast,” Biden’s armored limousine, drove up to the Augusta Victoria hospital in east Jerusalem, it was festooned with two American flags. In contrast, the day before, at the President’s Residence, the Beast sported an Israeli and an American flag.
Biden’s refusal to allow Israelis to visit with him, along with his change of flags, signaled he does not recognize Israeli sovereignty or authority in that part of Jerusalem.
Soon after, when the White House released a statement about Biden’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, they said he “reiterated the US position that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that it continues to be the policy of the United States that the specific boundaries of Jerusalem must be resolved through final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Whether Biden admits it or not - and he also denied it when asked directly in Thursday’s press conference - he made clear what the US thinks the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem should be by not allowing Israelis to visit Augusta Victoria with him and removing the Israeli flag from his car.
One should not, however, make the mistake of thinking that it downgrades Jerusalem. The hospital Biden visited on Friday is near the Mount of Olives, which has been a Jewish cemetery for 3,000 years and is still in use.
The mount overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem, home to two Jewish temples. Jerusalem is still, and will always be, the historic capital of the Jewish people and, therefore, the Jewish state.