Consider two scenes from the waning months of the Obama administration: One took place on September 30, 2016, the day that U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Simon Peres in Jerusalem. The second occurred in New York at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on December 23, 2016, when resolution 2334 passed only because the U.S. decided not to exercise its veto. Both have separately been written about extensively. It is the juxtaposition of these two events that underlines an appalling inconsistency in the U.S. position on Jerusalem: Israel is treated by the U.S. with denial, while the Palestinians received, via the Security Council, a totally unwarranted gift that breaks with a 68-year-old U.S. policy.
The eulogy text error
On September 30, U.S. President Barack Obama made the long trip to and from Israel in order to honor Shimon Peres with a personal eulogy. The funeral took place at the Mount Herzl cemetery, where several prime ministers, presidents, and other prominent Israeli figures are buried, and where Theodor Herzl was re-buried. Mount Herzl also serves as Israel’s main military cemetery, and is located in what is commonly called “West Jerusalem,” which remained on the Israeli side of the 1949 Armistice line that divided the city based on the positions of the Israeli and Jordanian armies at the end of hostilities. A short time after the funeral ceremony, a highly embarrassing White House error occurred that highlighted the longstanding reluctance of the U.S. to acknowledge that any part of Jerusalem, even West Jerusalem, is part of Israel. The official White House transcript of Obama’s eulogy was distributed with a heading that identified the location of the speech as “Jerusalem, Israel.” If allowed to stand, this wording would have undermined 68 years of consistent U.S. policy on Jerusalem. After this “unfortunate” wording was noticed, a corrected transcript was issued. But the correction was made in an insensitive manner; it did not write “Jerusalem,” but rather the more offensive “Jerusalem, Israel.”
This is not the first time that the Obama White House has publicly scrubbed “Israel.” In 2011, references to “Jerusalem, Israel” on photos appearing on the White House website were changed to “Jerusalem.”
Longstanding U.S. policy on Jerusalem
This 68-year-old policy was initially based on U.S. support for the original vision of U.N. General Assembly resolution 181, passed on November 29, 1947, which proposed partition of the area of the British Mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with Jerusalem to be a corpus seperatum controlled by the U.N. and not part of either state. The results of the war that was launched in May 1948 by five Arab states against the newly declared State of Israel was that Jerusalem was divided, with part, including the Old City, controlled by Jordan. A May 31, 1962 State Department memo noted that the U.S. did not establish its embassy in Jerusalem and had discouraged other countries from doing so, explaining, “Our objective has been to keep the Jerusalem question an open one…”
Jerusalem’s situation changed radically in June, 1967. In May, 1967, Egypt and Syria prepared for a new war against Israel. Egypt ordered U.N. peacekeepers out of Sinai, moved troops into Sinai, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, a recognized causus belli, and spoke ominously of destroying Israel. The June, 1967 Six Day War resulted in a stunning Israeli military victory, which ended with Israel controlling the Sinai desert, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the part of Jerusalem controlled by Jordan since 1949, commonly called “East Jerusalem.” It is important to recall the active Arab war preparations that preceded the war; this was a defensive war on Israel’s part. In August 1967, the Arab League met and adopted a policy of “No peace, No recognition, No negotiation” with Israel. In November, 1967, the Security Council adopted resolution 242, which envisioned Israeli withdrawal from some rather than all of the territories in exchange for peace with secure borders. With this background, in subsequent years Israel began construction in the Jerusalem area and in parts of the West Bank. While various U.S. governments have been critical of Israel’s settlement activities, some more and some less, they never called them “illegal.”
In 1995, Congress passed The Jerusalem Embassy Act requiring that the U.S. embassy be moved to Jerusalem. However, it gave the president an option to waive implementation every six months, and Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama each repeatedly exercised that waiver to defer the move. In justifying the deferral, the U.S. has taken the line that an action such as moving the embassy could prejudice future negotiations on the final status of the city.
Another manifestation of the same U.S. policy concerns the passports of American citizens born in the Western part of Jerusalem. The passports are issued with “Jerusalem” as the birthplace, not “Jerusalem, Israel.” A case that sought to overturn this policy ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a 2015 decision supporting the administration’s position.
On December 23, 2016 the U.N. Security Council met to consider a resolution ostensibly about Israeli settlements, a subject of exaggerated importance to the Obama administration since its early months in office, and one that had generated years of often hostile White House and State Department criticism of Israel. There had been much speculation for months that the Obama administration might not veto a Security Council resolution against Israel during the two and a half months between the November 8 election and the January 20 inauguration of a new president. And, indeed that is what happened on December 23. But, the resolution in question was not just critical of Israeli settlements; rather, it branded every settlement as being “without legal validity.” More than that, it contained language, in keeping with Palestinian demands, that referred to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.” East Jerusalem contains the Old City (including the Jewish Quarter, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall,) and the new neighborhoods built since the 1970s that are an inseparable part of the urban Jerusalem reality. The language defining East Jerusalem as “Palestinian territory” was totally at variance with 68 years of U.S. policy on Jerusalem.
For the Palestinians, the wording on East Jerusalem in 2334 complements the scandalous UNESCO resolution of October, 2016, denying a Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. The U.S. opposed the UNESCO resolution, but not resolution 2334. Of course, because the U.S. did not vote “Yes” on this resolution, the administration can claim that it didn’t fully support it, including the “Palestinian territory” statement. In practical terms, this is sophistry because the U.S. abstention was essential for the resolution to pass. In justifying the U.S. abstention, Samantha Power, stated that the U.S. would not have let the resolution pass if it undermined Israel’s security or imposed a solution. Unfortunately, and indeed astonishingly, the unwarranted depiction of East Jerusalem as Palestinian territory, though it contradicted long-standing U.S. policy, somehow did not constitute grounds for casting a veto.
So there we have it: A U.S. government that has been at pains to avoid referring to any part of Jerusalem as Israeli territory, as vividly demonstrated by the correction of the eulogy text, made it possible through its abstention for the Security Council to refer to “East Jerusalem” as Palestinian territory. To say that the status of Jerusalem is a vital Israeli interest is an understatement. The U.S. under Obama’s stewardship has inflicted significant harm on Israel’s political position by these actions.