AJIRI #59: At Long Last: Recognition of West Jerusalem as Part of Israel and as Israel’s Capital

December 2017

The True Meaning of the White House Statement
On December 6, 2017, the White House released a statement on Jerusalem that had two principal features: (1) It noted that the government of Israel has been located in Jerusalem, its capital, for the past 70 years and that the United States would now recognize that fact.  (2) It also made clear that such recognition did not mean that the United States was “taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”
In other words, nothing contained in President Trump’s statement suggested that he intended to make a change in the U.S. position regarding the status of any part of Jerusalem outside of West Jerusalem.  The statement did no more than confirm, at long last, that West Jerusalem was part of Israel.

The leadership of the Palestinian Authority is undoubtedly well familiar with all the foregoing facts concerning Jerusalem.  Yet its full understanding of the limited scope of the White House statement did not stop the Palestinian leadership from using the United Nations system to initiate a worldwide attack on the United States and Israel, grossly exaggerating the meaning of the new U.S. position.  What this campaign by the PA, based on a deliberate misinterpretation of the White House statement, suggests is that it is not interested in peace negotiations.  The PA leaders appear to believe that they benefit politically from continuing the anti-Israel struggle, rather than from helping to bring it to an end.
What is truly puzzling is that the West Europeans, led by France, Germany, and the UK participated in this anti-U.S./anti-Israel effort at the UN.  Could it be that their foreign ministry officials engaged in Near Eastern Affairs are so biased against Israel that they were not prepared to analyze the White House statement carefully?  Or could it be that they do not have enough knowledge of history to understand the text’s meaning?
The Historical Background
After about 400 years as part of the Ottoman Empire, the geographic area of Palestine, a part of what was then Southern Syria, came under British control in the course of World War I, when the area was occupied by British troops engaged in the war against the Ottoman Empire. After the War had come to an end, the League of Nations was created, and with it the British League of Nations Mandate of Palestine, which was to function in keeping with the Balfour Declaration.  (It certainly failed to do so as the years passed.)
The British Mandate of Palestine was still in place twenty years later, during World War II.  It was after that war had come to an end that the United Nations took over the responsibility for the Mandate of Palestine that had previously been vested in the League of Nations.  As the British made it clear that they wanted to end their engagement in the Mandate, the United Nations General Assembly took action for a new arrangement.  On November 29, 1947, it adopted a resolution, A/Res. 181 (ii), that recommended that following British withdrawal, the Mandate of Palestine be divided into three entities: an Arab state, a Jewish state, and a corpus separatum for Jerusalem, which was to operate “under a special international regime [to] be administered by the United Nations.”  The idea of the corpus separatum had the strong support of the Vatican, which saw to it that it included Bethlehem and other Christian holy places.  Res. 181 specified recommended boundaries for each of the three suggested entities.
Following the British withdrawal from the Mandate area in May 1948, the Jewish Agency declared the establishment of the State of Israel in the area that had been earmarked for the future Jewish state.  No effort was undertaken by the Arab states to create a Palestinian Arab state.  Nor was action taken to create the corpus separatum for Jerusalem.  Immediately following the announcement of the establishment of the State of Israel, the neighboring Arab states attacked the newly-created state of Israel.  That military conflict that lasted for a little over a year and resulted in the defeat of the attacking Arab armies.
By June 1949 Israel had concluded armistice agreements with the Arab states.  Under some of these agreements, new demarcation lines were drawn, which differed from the boundaries specified in Res. 181.  Thus, under the armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan of April 3, 1949, the demarcation line between the two states included in Israel territory that had under Res. 181 been recommended for inclusion in the Arab state.  As to Jerusalem: it was simply divided between Israel and Jordan, with the Western part in Israel and the Eastern part in Jordan.  The armistice agreement made provision for the two states to cooperate in a way that would benefit both parts of the divided Jerusalem area.
As to these lines, drawn in the April 3, 1949 armistice agreement, the United States has recognized the lines drawn for lands outside Jerusalem as constituting Israel’s borders (often referred to as “the 1967 boundaries”), but until December 6, 2017, failed to recognize the boundaries drawn for lands that was to be part of the corpus separatum.  That raises the question of why the United States did not accept all the lines drawn in the Israel/Jordan armistice agreement of 1949, including those within the Jerusalem area.
The answer is that though both Israel and the Arab states opposed the idea of a corpus separatum for Jerusalem, the State Department urged in 1949 that the effort to establish the corpus for Jerusalem be continued through efforts undertaken at the United Nations. Given that State Department position, the incorporation of West Jerusalem into Israel was not recognized by the United States and the fact that Israel’s government was located there was ignored and the U.S. Embassy was not moved there.
While the Vatican continued to be committed to the corpus separatum concept, the opposition of both the Arab states and Israel made it clear that efforts to establish a UN-led legal entity for Jerusalem were simply not making headway at the UN.  To be sure, efforts to revive the proposal continued from time to time in the early 1950’s.  But as the United States moved from the Truman Administration to the Eisenhower Administration, it became increasingly clear that there was no realistic chance that the United Nations would establish the proposed corpus separatum for Jerusalem.  By 1954 it certainly seemed reasonable and legally appropriate for the United States to accept the lines drawn by the Israeli/Jordanian Armistice Agreement of 1949 in full, rather than merely in part, to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to place the U.S. Embassy in that capital, as we do in other countries in which we have embassies.
Why was it not done?  What needs to be understood is that there was no specific event that caused the Jerusalem corpus separatum proposal to be shelved.  It simply received less and less attention as time passed and the United States became fully engaged in the numerous issues posed by the Cold War.  As for the major problems in the Near East region, the United States was concerned about Soviet influence in the Arab states, particularly after the rise of Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt.  The State Department leadership certainly did not concern itself with the issue of whether West Jerusalem was part of Israel and whether the U.S. Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv, where it had been established in 1948, to Jerusalem.
That does not mean that there were not lower-ranking officials in the State Department who were well aware of the state of affairs regarding West Jerusalem and the fact that to do business with the Government of Israel, the staff of our Embassy had to travel more than 40 miles.  But these State Department officials were not merely focused on Israel.  They were responsible for the region, thus for the many adjacent Arab states.  They considered it to be in the U.S. national interest to accommodate the concerns of the Arab states.  To be sure the Arab states had strongly opposed the proposal of a Jerusalem corpus separatum.  But that was immaterial as the 1950’s progressed and the corpus faded from the scene.  Though it would have been legally appropriate to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, it was not done because that would have appeared to those unfamiliar with the background as bestowing a special favor on Israel.  It would actually have been the legally appropriate action, given U.S. acceptance of the armistice demarcation lines as the new boundaries.
It was in the early 1990’s that Congress began to concern itself with the Jerusalem Embassy issue.  In 1995 it passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which called for the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  However, the Act also provided that the President may suspend such action for successive periods of six months if he finds such suspension necessary “to protect the national security interests of the United States.”  Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, acting on the State Department’s advice did find suspension necessary, at regular intervals.  So did President Trump until his December 6, 2017 announcement of a basic change.
The key decision that has now been made is one that should have been made more than 60 years ago: that the United States recognizes West Jerusalem as part of Israel.  As the State of Israel maintains its government there, it follows logically that the United States recognizes it as Israel’s capital.  It further follows logically that that is where the United States should maintain its Embassy, a decision that has now been made.  All of this is a consequence of the U.S. decision of the Truman Administration to recognize the 1949 armistice demarcation lines as the borders of Israel.