Relocating the US Embassy in Israel: Better Late Than Never
President Donald Trump made a campaign promise to “move the American embassy to Jerusalem – to the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”
Amid the media brouhaha that followed, it went largely unnoticed that Congress — by an overwhelming vote in both Houses in 1995 — had passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, calling for the undivided city to be recognized as “the capital of the State of Israel” by no later than May 31, 1999. It thereby affirmed the principle that, “Each sovereign nation, under international law and custom, may designate its own capital.” Ignoring his own pre-election pledge, President Clinton, followed by Presidents Bush and Obama, disregarded the act.
The history of denial, abetted by the United Nations, began in 1947 when the Security Council declared Jerusalem a separate entity, under the aegis of the Trusteeship Council. Seven months after Israel declared its independence, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 calling for Jerusalem to be placed under “effective United Nations supervision“ pending the development of “a permanent international regime” for the ancient capital of the Jewish people.
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion responded by proclaiming Jerusalem as the new country’s capital. During the 1948 Independence War, while the city was under siege, it had been compelled to establish its seat of government in Tel Aviv. But, Ben-Gurion noted, “for the state of Israel there has always been and always will be one capital only – Jerusalem the Eternal.” He urged the Knesset to conduct its sessions there, which it did beginning in February 1949. The following year Israel designated Jerusalem as its capital.
Thirty years later the Knesset passed a Basic Law affirming Jerusalem, “complete and united,” as the capital of Israel. The UN Security Council labeled it “null and void” as “a violation of international law.” Like frightened sheep, twenty-two countries with embassies in (West) Jerusalem relocated them to Tel Aviv. Periodically thereafter, the United Nations reiterated its insistence that the Israeli action was null and void.
Now, once again, the wheel of recognition has turned. In mid-December President-elect Donald Trump’s announcement of David M. Friedman — an Orthodox Jew — as his choice for ambassador to Israel roiled the liberal Jewish world. New York Times reporters Isabel Kershner and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (ignoring the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act passed by Congress) cited Friedman’s “frequent statements that flout decades of bipartisan American policy.” They seemed shocked that “he refers to the West Bank by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria,” and anticipated working “from the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
Several days before his inauguration, President-elect Trump reassured an Israel Hayom reporter: “I am not a person who breaks promises.” His promise, given to the AIPAC Conference the previous March, was to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem. By Inauguration Day, New York Times unease over that prospect was palpable. Headlining the promise as “a Gift of Uncertain Value,” its Jerusalem reporters cited “many Israeli Jews” who wondered if it was “a gift that could be politely pushed away.” Their primary source was Akiva Eldar, a former Haaretz columnist and editor who co-authored a blistering critique of Jewish settlements a decade ago (lavishly praised in the Times for its “detailed narrative of injustice”). For reinforcement of his critique they turned to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Times reporters lamented “a victory for Israel’s right wing.” But they quoted Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon, who noted: “Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish people 3,000 years ago,” during the reign of Kings David and Solomon. And Orthodox Rabbi Marvin Hier, delivering an Inaugural Benediction, cited Psalm 137: ‘If I forget you O Jerusalem…’
It remains to be determined when, and whether, President Trump’s promise will be honored. Amid the diplomatic flurry, and Palestinian threats of mass protests and violence, the White House press secretary indicated: “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing the subject.”
Jerold S. Auerbach is a frequent contributor to The Algemeiner.