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Burying your head in Jerusalem

If even Israel's closest friends don't recognize the disputed city as the capital of the Jewish state, why the uproar?

Bloggers and activists on The Times of Israel and elsewhere have chastised the BBC, the largest public broadcasting news service in the world, which is funded by British taxpayers, for failing to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, for recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine/the Palestinian Authority, and finally, for not listing an Israeli capital at all. Eventually the BBC opted for what I perceive to be an appropriate choice — labeling Jerusalem as the seat of government:

BBC lists Jerusalem on Israel Olympics page, but as the ‘seat of government.’

Appropriate outrage?

One interesting tidbit, brought up by Israeli journalist Mairav Zonszein but largely ignored by both critics and supporters of the BBC’s decision, was the choice to view Jerusalem as one unit. Israel’s “seat of government,” including the Knesset, is in Givat Ram, in West Jerusalem. However, that’s not where foreign embassies are located; not a single foreign government, even among Israel’s closest allies, has maintained a permanent embassy in Jerusalem (West or East) since 1980 (UNSC Resolution 478) — even if it is Israel’s declared capital.

Givat Ram is west of the 'Green Line'
Israel’s seat of government is within the Green Line

International norms

Why then, did the BBC fail to originally list the capital of Israel as Jerusalem (and ultimately not as anyone’s capital)? For most of the world, the answer is quite simple — but for Israel’s staunchest loyalists (including team Obama-is-a-Kenyan-Muslim over at Breitbart) it’ll always boil down to anti-Semitism and ad-hominem attacks. Here’s a quote from a piece by Lori Lowenthal Marcus in The Jewish Press:

Shahar Zubari is part of the Israeli Olympic team in London. But London has been unable to tell the difference between a real country (Israel) and an imagined one (Palestine).  (Emphasis added)

Let’s review some of Israel’s best friends on the issue of Jerusalem, shall we? The United States, which commonly declares that its friendship with Israel is “ironclad,” did pass a congressional law to move the embassy to Jerusalem in 1995, but every US president since has used a presidential waiver to avoid implementation. This includes Republican President George W. Bush – who used thirteen separate waivers. (The United States does maintain a consulate in Jerusalem, but the staff is actually completely separate from the embassy in Tel Aviv. It has been primarily used as a diplomatic channel to the Palestinian Authority.)

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom declares Jerusalem as “yet to be determined, and maintains that it should be settled in an overall agreement between the parties concerned.” Canada, which is hailed by some on the right as a stronger ally to Israel than the United States, has this to say about Jerusalem:

Canada considers the status of Jerusalem can be resolved only as part of a general settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Canada does not recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem.

And here is a screen grab from the Canadian Foreign Ministry’s “fact sheet” on Israel (can you spot Jerusalem?):

Nobody is complaining about Israel's capital here.
Nobody is complaining about Israel’s capital here.

United in dividing

As much as Israel’s politicians (mirrored in part by their allies in the American congress) pay lip service to the religious/nationalist right on Jerusalem, there are certain realities that are completely ignored in the mind-numbing discussion of the holy city’s final status.

The Palestinian Authority is openly operating in Arab parts of East Jerusalem, and according to the Israeli Shin Bet security service, Palestinian Authority security officials are becoming more involved in the city due to the lack of Israeli security. In fact, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies released a study in 2005 that showed that many of Jerusalem’s non-Jewish inhabitants were already enclosed east of the separation barrier — or effectively segregated from West Jerusalem.

Israel’s leading statesmen also know that the rhetoric surrounding a “forever undivided Jerusalem” is unlikely. Former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak offered significant portions of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority in direct negotiations. In fact, Olmert famously criticized the “united Jerusalem” slogan earlier this year:

When was Issawiya was part of the historical Jerusalem? When was Abu Dis part of historical Jerusalem? What memories do the people of Israel have from those names I mentioned? When did we ever long for Abu Dis, which suddenly is treated as if there is no life in Jerusalem without it and without all kinds of other neighborhoods that are populated by Arabs?” (Emphasis added)

Corpus separatum — the official status of Jerusalem

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows more common sense than many who shout “undivided Jerusalem” from the rooftops. In an interview with PBS in 2011, he said:

I want Jerusalem a united city for sure. But that’s the way I go — These are not preconditions for negotiations. They’re positions in the negotiations. The final positions come out after a negotiation. (Emphasis added)

I’ll let my readers know that my Grandmother is a resident of the Gilo settlement, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. She’s a kind woman, certainly not a nationalist or religious zealot to any extent of the word. Born and raised in the small Iranian town of Kermenshah, she fled the tyrannical Islamist government in 1979, and ended up opting for a cheap place to live, which, it turns out, tends to be in the settlements rather than in major cities in Israel. I don’t want her to lose her house, and even though the PLO has offered practically all of East Jerusalem’s settlements to Israel in past negotiations, I would support an agreement that compensates her and allows her to move within Israel’s final borders.

Construction in the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, which is over the Green Line in Jerusalem (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Construction in the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, which is over the Green Line in Jerusalem (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Moving forward

Political scientist Dr. Menachem Klein, Israel’s top former diplomat on the issue of Jerusalem, outlines three possible scenarios:

If Israel wants to prevent the degeneration of its democratic character and to strengthen Jerusalem, it faces three options. The first is to allow every Palestinian inhabitant of Jerusalem who is interested, to receive full Israeli citizenship , unconditionally. The second is to enable the PA to operate in East Jerusalem and see to the day-to-day needs of this population. In such a framework these Palestinians would be able to establish municipal and community institutions of their own that would work for their benefit. Israel could propose this even without negotiations on a permanent-status agreement.

The third and final possibility is to accept the principle suggested by President Bill Clinton in 2000: dividing the city between areas most of whose residents are Jewish and those that are mostly Palestinian, and establishing a plan and a short timetable to implement arrangements that would lead to the realization of this principle with or without relation to a comprehensive settlement. (Emphasis added)

It’s clear that Jerusalem is a top priority for both Jewish Israelis and the broader Jewish Diaspora, both historically and religiously. Anyone who pretends that “next year in Jerusalem” is not a significant (and non-political part) of Judaism is mad. Anyone who takes that into consideration, but utterly rejects any sort of non-Jewish significance to the city, is either dishonest or ignorant.

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Editor’s note: This piece was edited after its publication to reflect the fact that the BBC is funded by viewers rather than directly by government.

About the Author
Matan Lurey is a blogger, recent grad from the University of California, Irvine in Software Engineering, and was former President of Hillel: the Jewish Student Union. He was a leading member in the Olive Tree Initiative, a non-partisan effort to educate students on the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and greater Middle East.
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