Jerusalem, Capital of Israel

Illustration on Jerusalem by Alexander Hunter/The Washington Times

Illustration on Jerusalem by Alexander Hunter/The Washington Times

– – Sunday, December 24, 2017


The current debate over Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to recognize it as such, is sorely lacking in historical context.

In 1947, after Great Britain announced its intent to relinquish its mandate over Palestine (which dated from 1917), the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) was formed to investigate and recommend a fair disposition for the territory, claimed by Jews and Arabs. The result was the U.N.Partition Resolution of Nov. 29, 1947, which recommended the division of Mandatory Palestine into three entities. To start, an Arab and a Jewish state were to be established. But the partition resolution went on to provide a special dispensation for the city of Jerusalem:

“The City of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separatum (separate body) under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations. The Trusteeship Council shall be designated to discharge the responsibilities of the Administering Authority on behalf of the United Nations.”

When the Arab states refused to accept the concept of the creation of a Jewish state and the British were about to end their engagement in the Mandate area, the Jewish Agency for Palestine established the State of Israel in May 1948. Overruling Secretary of State Marshall, President Truman decided to recognize the State of Israel within days following the establishment of the state.

Israel was immediately attacked by the neighboring Arab states, but won the war. The war came to an end in 1949 with the conclusion of armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab states which had attacked it. The armistice agreement concluded between Israel and Transjordan (now Jordan) resulted in the drawing of demarcation lines that allocated more land to Israel than had been recommended in UNGA Res. 181, including West Jerusalem.

After Israel had moved its capital to West Jerusalem, the State Department agreed to acceptance of the boundaries that enlarged Israel, except for the inclusion of West Jerusalem. It wanted to pursue the effort to establish the third entity recommended in the UNGA resolution: Jerusalem as a corpus separatum. It urged that the U.S. not recognize West Jerusalem as part of Israel and not establish a U.S. Embassy there. The White House did not disagree with that recommendation.

In the years immediately following Israel’s war of independence, efforts were indeed undertaken by U.N.entities to establish Jerusalem as a corpus separatum. But the Arab states as well as Israel were opposed. By 1954 it was clear that the proposed third entity would not be established.

The idea had been overtaken by events. The city remained divided: West Jerusalem as part of Israel, East Jerusalem as part of Jordan. Efforts to create the corpus separatum were given up and West Jerusalemwas indeed considered part of Israel. U.S. Embassy personnel stationed in Tel Aviv would travel consistently to West Jerusalem for contact with the appropriate Israeli government agencies.

At that point it would have been logically and legally appropriate to recognize West Jerusalem as part of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there. But the Eisenhower administration, with John Foster Dulles as secretary of State, was greatly concerned about Soviet penetration of the Arab world and wanted to avoid a step that would antagonize the Arab states.It is thus the Cold War situation in 1954 that caused the United States to create an exception in the case of Israel to its worldwide policy regarding the location of U.S. Embassies, by maintaining an embassy in a city other than the country’s declared capital.

Thus the policy that has been followed for the past 63 years was based on the Cold War concerns of 1954 — now obviously no longer relevant. As the years passed, the original reason for this glaring anomaly appears to have been forgotten.

It is also worth noting in this context that in 1974 the United States established diplomatic relations with the German Democratic Republic (Communist East Germany). The German Democratic Republic (GDR), had been established in 1949 under the auspices of the Soviet Union. It consisted of what had been the Soviet Zone of Occupation of Germany and the Soviet Sector of Berlin.

Under an agreement reached between the Soviet Union and the Western powers, France, the U.K. and the U.S. in 1945, decisions regarding Berlin were to be made by consensus of the four occupying powers. The Western powers had not agreed to the incorporation of East Berlin into the GDR, but it was nevertheless incorporated into the GDR and was established as the capital of East Germany. When, in 1974, the U.S. established diplomatic relations with the GDR, the U.S. Embassy to the GDR was located in East Berlin, the capital of the GDR, even though we did not recognize East Berlin as a part of the GDR.

Mr. Trump’s official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a recognition of fact, and the carrying out of a congressional mandate dating back to 1995 (not to mention the fulfillment of a campaign promise). The act of recognition does not determine what the ultimate boundaries of Jerusalem will be. It means simply that the United States recognizes that West Jerusalem is part of Israel. That reality has simply not been understood by those who have raised hackles and protests in Europe, in the Middle East, and elsewhere (though apparently not as much as had been feared).

What needs to be understood is that Mr. Trump’s action is not a special favor granted to the State of Israel. It is a matter of ending a policy of discriminating against the State of Israel, which has been the only country worldwide in which the U.S. Embassy is located in a city other than the country’s capital.

Richard Schifter, former deputy U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, is founder and chairman of the board of the American Jewish International Relations Institute.

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