Decades after officially recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the US is finally doing so in practice.
With one small tweet on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck down one of the last vestiges of American refusal to recognize not just that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital, but that it was part of the Jewish state all together.
True, US President Donald Trump already stated that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital, and underscored the point by physically relocating the US embassy there. But when US citizens with Jerusalem-born children sought to register the country of birth as Israel, America refused.
It wasn’t just that the option to do so was absent: There was an explicit State Department directive that forbade it. “Do not list Israel, Jordan, or West Bank for persons born within the current municipal borders of Jerusalem,” the directive ordered.
It was a blatant reminder that the policy under which a president or an ambassador might operate had yet to filter its way throughout US policy. When it comes to Jerusalem, the city was still divorced from the country. US citizens born in Taiwan could list either Taiwan or China, but those born in Jerusalem were not given a similar option.
To understand how far the US has come in just the few short years of the Trump administration’s term, one need look back no further than former US president Barack Obama’s lighting blitz trip to Israel to eulogize the country’s former president and prime minister Shimon Peres in September 2016, just months before he was due to leave office.
Obama delivered his eulogy in West Jerusalem, in the country’s national cemetery at Mt. Herzl, where most of the country’s leaders and military heroes are buried. But the White House still refused to acknowledge that Obama was actually standing in Israel.
Its stance was so apparent because the White House retracted an initial copy of Obama’s speech that had placed him in “Jerusalem, Israel” and reissued it, having erased the word Israel and leaving only the designation of Jerusalem.
It was as if the ancient city, home to the world’s three major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Israel and Christianity – was a country in itself, rather than the capital of the modern Jewish State of Israel.
At issue was not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather the refusal of the United States at the time – and in fact most of the world – to recognize Israeli rights and sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem.
The Bible, the world’s most read book, might speak of Jerusalem, from where King David ruled, as the capital of the ancient Jewish state. And the Jewish Temple might once have stood on its mountainous height.
But for over a century, the international community has failed to recognize Jewish national rights to their biblical capital – even those parts, such as Mt. Herzl, that are in west Jerusalem and have no bearing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Part of the problem dates back to the concept, phrased in Latin of corpus separatum, in which the international community initially envisioned Jerusalem as an international city. It was a concept that was codified in the United Nations 1947 partition plan, known as Resolution 181, and again in Resolution 194 of 1948. The resolutions have not yet been revoked and the later text is still referenced in documents.
There is something to the argument of corpus separatum, in which a city sacred to the three religions should be internationalized rather than nationalized by a single sovereign nation.
The argument, however, would have to hold against all claimants to the city – Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, the latter who maintain a special custodial relationship on the Temple Mount, known is Islam as al-Haram al-Sharif.
The international community has clung to the idea of corpus separatum when it comes to Jews, whose connection to the city is historically documented and predates those of Islam and Christianity.
But it has relinquished the concept of corpus separatum when it comes to Palestinians, recognizing that east Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, but in many cases not acknowledging that west Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. This is the case, even though the Old City, the historical heart of the three monotheistic religions, is technically located in east Jerusalem.
The disavowal of Israeli rights to Jerusalem has become an annual rite, particularly at the United Nations, which passes multiple resolutions on the matter. While many of its condemnations are specific to Israel’s presence in east Jerusalem, they also often contain a more global line that could be viewed as reflective of all Jerusalem.
They often note that Israeli actions to “alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem” and must be rescinded forthwith.
In the aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel, the United States supported the UN position on Jerusalem. It rejected in particular the Israeli decision to annex east Jerusalem in the aftermath of the June 1967 Six Day War and Israel’s subsequent decision to cement that annexation with a Knesset vote in 1980.
The views of Congress and the White House began to split on the matter. Already in 1990, the US House of Representatives recognized not just that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital, but that this designation included a united Jerusalem, east and west. The most famous of the Congressional texts was the 1995 US Embassy Act that required the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
It was a mandate that each US president had deferred – until Trump. The current president not only moved the embassy to Jerusalem, but he also published a peace plan that would allow Israel to keep most of it.
In the interim, the US administration has not formally recognized Israeli sovereignty over those sections of the city located across the pre-1967 lines. But it has done so in a de facto manner – and with it, erased the last vestiges of corpus separatum.
Pompeo’s tweet on Thursday was about passports, and contained only a few short lines that appeared to be about a technical designation for passports. In actuality, it was a message to the world: that Jerusalem is an integral part of modern Israel.