Every sovereign country has the right to determine where to locate its capital. Most countries in the world, however, have denied Israel this basic right. When Israel was established, it was natural for the founders to establish the capital in Jerusalem. After all, since the reign of King David and for hundreds of years, Jerusalem was the capital of successive Jewish kingdoms. Throughout centuries of exile, Jerusalem always occupied a major place in Jewish prayers and yearning to return to Jerusalem and make it again the capital of an independent Jewish state.
During the 1947-48 War of Independence, the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, made an enormous military effort to keep Jerusalem in Jewish hands. He was only partially successful. Israel kept control of the western section of the city, but lost the eastern section to Jordan, including the Jewish Quarter and the Wailing Wall, the holiest Jewish site.Immediately after declaring independence, several countries, including the US and the then-USSR, recognized the State of Israel. In May 1949, Israel also became a UN member. In December 1949, Israel declared the Western section as its capital, and moved to Jerusalem the Knesset, the presidency, the courts, ministries and governmental agencies. There was no reason for the international community to deny recognition of Western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Between 1948 and 1967, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan, but so was Berlin. The political and diplomatic situation in Berlin was far more controversial than the situation in Jerusalem; yet, the US and most countries recognized East Berlin as the Capital of East Germany.
All Israeli efforts to gain recognition for Jerusalem failed and only 16 countries, primarily from Latin America, located their embassies in the city in those years. They were Netherlands, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Zaire, Kenya, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela. Other states placed embassies in the Tel Aviv area. It is reasonable to assume that had the US established the embassy in Jerusalem, many other countries would have followed through.
During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured and later annexed eastern Jerusalem and unified the city. Since then, the capital’s status became one of the issues to be settled in Arab-Israeli negotiations. Apparently, nobody expected the conflict to persist for so many years. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Ivory Coast, Zaire and Kenya severed diplomatic relations with Israel and closed their embassies in Jerusalem, following a resolution by the Non-Aligned alliance. In 1980, the remaining countries also closed their embassies, following the Knesset’s passage of the “Basic Law on Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel,” which stated that the city would remain the “complete and united capital of Israel.” Since the 1993 Oslo peace process, the Palestinians have demanded to make Eastern Jerusalem the capital of their independent state.
In October 1995, the US Congress passed by overwhelming majorities (Senate 93-5, House 374-37) “The Jerusalem Embassy Act.” It stated that Jerusalem should remain unified and recognized as Israel’s capital, and instructed the president to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by May 31, 1999. The law however, allowed the president to sign a waiver every six months, if he couldn’t implement the law because of “national security” considerations. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama invoked the waiver and failed to implement the law. They all assumed that moving the embassy would compromise Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and stir violent protests against the US across the Muslim world.
During the 2016 presidential elections, President Donald Trump repeatedly promised to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. On June 5, 2017, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution (by 90-0) that reaffirmed the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act and called upon the president to implement it. On December 6, 2017, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and instructed the State Department to plan and prepare the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. The Palestinians were furious and suspended all contacts with the US on Trump’s pending peace plan. Many commentators and “experts” forecasted wide spread violent protests against the US in the Muslim world. They were wrong. On February 23, 2018, Trump announced that the embassy would open in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence.
From the beginning of his term, Trump aspired to build a heritage of bold and historical transforming events. He counted the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem as one of these events. Trump wanted to demonstrate that he is fulfilling campaign promises, and specifically satisfy his political base, especially evangelical Christians, who have strongly insisted on recognition and the embassy transfer. He also thought that his move would shake the stalled Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. This scenario may still occur, as Trump indicated that in return for the transfer, Israel would have to make reciprocal concessions. Several states have already expressed intent or interest in moving their embassies to Jerusalem, including Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, the Czech Republic, and Romania. Other states may follow the US example. Trump would be remembered as a determined president, who unlike his predecessors had the courage to fix a long, strange and unjustified historical diplomatic anomaly.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the Center for International Communication and a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.