Mitchell Bard

Where in the World was President Obama?

On September 30, President Obama attended the memorial service for Shimon Peres. At 8 a.m., the White House posted the official transcript of the president’s remarks, which it said were delivered on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Israel. At 4:30 p.m., a “corrected” version deleted the reference to Israel. Apparently he entered the Twilight Zone.

The reason for Obama’s disappearance from the map was that the United States does not recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel. “International law makes states the sole determinants of their own capital,” according to Avi Bell, a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University. Nevertheless, of the 190 nations with which America has diplomatic relations, Israel is the only one whose capital is not recognized by the U.S. government. Furthermore, a set of rules (e.g., not allowing official cars to fly the U.S. flag in the city, and leaving Israel off documents identifing Americans born in Jerusalem) were established to do everything possible to avoid the appearance of U.S. legitimation of Israel’s capital. The United States not only refused to locate its embassy in Jerusalem, but also pressured others not to do so.

In an effort to change U.S. policy, Congress overwhelmingly passed The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. This landmark bill declared that, as a statement of official US policy, Jerusalem should be recognized as the undivided, eternal capital of Israel and required that the U.S. embassy in Israel be established in Jerusalem no later than May 1999. The law also included a waiver that allowed the president to ignore the legislation if he deemed doing so to be in the best interest of the United States. President Clinton and all of his successors have exercised that option.

The pretexts for successive administrations’ refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital are that at least part of the city (East Jerusalem) is “occupied,” that UN Security Council Resolution 242 calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories acquired in the 1967 war and that any decision regarding the city’s future must be negotiated with the Palestinians. The true reason for America’s position is the Arabist-induced fear that recognizing Israel’s capital would cause an uproar in the Muslim world that could lead our Muslim allies to turn on us and, potentially, provoke a holy war.

If we unpack these arguments, it will become clear they are spurious.

First, historically, the Palestinians have little connection to Jerusalem. While Jews trace their connection to the city back 3,000 years, the Palestinian connection to the area is at most 1,000 years old. Prior to the Western powers carving up the Middle East after World War I, Jerusalem was a backwater in the Ottoman Empire. The city was never the capital of any Arab state and had little significance outside of its symbolism to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Palestinians may want Jerusalem for the capital of a future state, but they have no legitimate claim to the city.

The argument that East Jerusalem has always been Arab and therefore should be part of a Palestinian state is inaccurate. The only time that the eastern part of Jerusalem was exclusively Arab was between 1949 and 1967, and that was because Jordan occupied the area and forcibly expelled all the Jews. Before 1865, the entire population of Jerusalem lived behind the Old City walls (i.e., the eastern part of the city). Later, the city began to expand beyond the walls because of population growth, and both Jews and Arabs began to build in new areas of the city.

By the time of partition, a thriving Jewish community was living in the eastern part of Jerusalem, an area that included the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. This area of the city also contains many sites of importance to the Jewish religion, including the City of David, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall. In addition, major institutions such as Hebrew University and the original Hadassah Hospital are on Mount Scopus—in eastern Jerusalem.

With regard to the legality of Israel’s presence in Jerusalem, Arthur Goldberg, the U.S. ambassador to the UN who helped draft resolution 242, stated unequivocally that reference to Jerusalem was deliberately omitted. “Jerusalem was a discrete matter, not linked to the West Bank,” he said. In several speeches at the UN in 1967, Goldberg said, “I repeatedly stated that the armistice lines of 1948 were intended to be temporary. This, of course, was particularly true of Jerusalem. At no time in these many speeches did I refer to East Jerusalem as occupied territory.”

What about the possible catastrophic effects of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?

Undoubtedly, the United States would be criticized, but if the rest of the countries with embassies in Tel Aviv quickly followed suit, the issue would be moot. In the past, the Saudis had leverage to coerce governments not to move their embassies. When Canada announced it would move its embassy in 1979, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait canceled more than $400 million worth of contracts with Canadian firms and threatened to withdraw their deposits from Canadian banks. The value of the Canadian dollar sank, and the country faced a potential economic crisis. The government subsequently decided to postpone the embassy move. Today, it still sits in Tel Aviv. Similar threats directly against the United States have never been made public, but it is not difficult to imagine they have been made privately,

The Saudis are already angry with the United States for a variety of reasons, and have threatened to withdraw huge sums of money as a result of Congress passing a law allowing victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi government. The Saudis do not have the clout they had in the 70s following the oil embargo. We called their bluff on the 9/11 legislation, we should do the same with regard to the embassy.

Radical Muslims might use the decision as an excuse to attack Western targets, but they are doing so today and will continue to engage in terror tomorrow regardless of Jerusalem’s status. Furthermore, the Arab states know that Jerusalem has been the capital since 1967 and Israel has no intention of allowing the city to be divided again. Israel already respects the freedom of all faiths to practice their religion so that is not an issue. The countries that are pro-American need us more than we need them, so making an issue of our recognition of Israel’s capital would be counterproductive.

Israel has not pressed the issue of American recognition, in part because it does not need it. Jerusalem is the capital whether anyone likes it or not. Israel may also fear provoking an uproar with the Muslims, but Mahmoud Abbas and others have been trying to incite Muslims for years with the libel that Israel is planning to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

This may be the ideal time to end the fiction that Jerusalem is not Israel’s capital. Israel’s relations with Muslim states is better than it’s ever been. Muslims are already busy fighting wars with each other throughout the region and can ill afford another. Some might argue they would unite to defend Jerusalem, but the divisions between Shiites and Sunnis will not be healed that easily. Those other wars — in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya – are also occupying the attention of the leaders in the region.

Some opponents argue that recognition of Israel’s capital will harm the peace process. If anything, reversing our position is likely to have the opposite effect. By making clear the United States believes Jerusalem should remain unified under Israeli sovereignty, Palestinian expectations regarding the city can be moderated and thereby enhance the prospects for a final agreement.

The U.S. Congress is solidly behind the idea of moving the embassy, but State Department Arabists, determined to weaken Israel and undermine U.S.-Israel relations, will do everything they can to sabotage any change in the administration’s position.

A bigger hurdle is the president, who is fixated on settlements and, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes they are the obstacle to peace. In his first year in office, he tried to coerce Israel to accept a settlement freeze that included Jerusalem and gave the Palestinians hope he would force Israel to divide the city. That ill-conceived proposal was largely responsible for eight years of unsuccessful peace initiatives.

Still, it is not too late for Obama to do the right thing.

Rather than taking the rumored counterproductive action at the UN of supporting a vote to recognize “Palestine” or declaring settlements illegal, Obama could enhance the cause of peace and give his successor the gift of resolving one of the thorniest issues by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. For that to happen, however, Obama would have to return from the Twilight Zone and I’m afraid he’s been lost there permanently. Perhaps, his successor will see the light.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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