Does Michael Morell Actually Believe Tel Aviv Is the Capital of Israel?
Michael Morell is one of America’s foremost national security experts, widely respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. Over more than three decades of distinguished service at the CIA, he rose to become Director of Intelligence, Deputy Director, and finally Acting Director. He was at President Bush’s side on 9/11, and supervised the CIA’s role in the Bin Laden raid. As a seasoned intelligence professional, he clearly understands the ways in which people, just like countries, project their values, intentions, beliefs — and biases.
A case in point is his May 22 Washington Post column about rising tensions with Iran, which included this curious line: “How do senior officials in places such as Beijing, Moscow, Damascus, Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and other capitals see the current situation and challenges and opportunities created for them by it. How are they trying to influence us?”
Speaking of influencing others, Mr. Morell surely is aware that in December 2017, President Trump, on behalf of the United States, officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
While the president’s strong pro-Israel policies have been excoriated by a range of critics, in Zivitofsky v. Kerry (2015), the US Supreme Court declared that US recognition of foreign countries and capitals is the sole prerogative of the president. Although Israel’s capital has been located in west Jerusalem since 1950, the United States and most other countries traditionally withheld formal recognition of this reality due to the conflicting and unresolved claims among Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. Nonetheless, even before the recent change in executive policy, for decades the CIA’s appropriately-named annual World Factbook consistently listed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — albeit with a disclaimer noting the lack of US and international recognition.
Even if Jerusalem’s status remains a sensitive and unresolved political question, it is a matter of indisputable fact that Tel Aviv is not, and has never been, Israel’s official capital (it was only the seat of Israel’s first embryonic government, from independence in May 1948 until December 1949).
The Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister’s office and residence, the Foreign Ministry, and virtually every other Israeli ministry and government agency has been located in west Jerusalem for nearly 70 years. The Ministry of Defense sits in Tel Aviv, but that doesn’t make it Israel’s capital any more than the Pentagon makes Arlington the capital of the United States.
Regardless, “Zionist-deniers” of every stripe routinely use “Tel Aviv” as shorthand for Israel’s capital. That includes sworn enemies like Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas, as well as some Western government officials, journalists, academics, celebrities, and activists. Doing so sends a clear message that the speaker rejects Israel’s claim to sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem.
The question is why would a man of Mr. Morell’s experience and stature employ a rhetorical falsehood that is typically used to signal hostility towards Israel?
As a private citizen, he is both no longer bound by US government policy, and certainly free to hold and express whatever opinions he wishes. Yet freedom of speech does not explain, or justify, one’s choice of speech. If he disapproves of Israel generally, or just some of its policies, he would hardly be the first current or former US government official to do so. But criticism of Israel can be and often is expressed without resorting to linguistic trickery.
He may believe that “Tel Aviv” displays a Lawrence of Arabia-type respect for Arab sensitivities (if so, perhaps he should abandon “Jerusalem” altogether in favor of “Al-Quds”). He might be offended by Israel’s rightward drift, and misstating its capital is a form of passive rebuke. Or maybe in his social and political orbit, “Tel Aviv” is so commonplace that his word choice was reflexive. We simply can’t know from one passing reference, and — as he himself noted in his Washington Post column — it is unwise for anyone to make assumptions about other people’s unexpressed motives.
What is knowable, and provable, are objective facts. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, informally acknowledged as such by almost the entire non-Muslim world, and now formally recognized by the United States and a handful of other countries. Even Russia, patron of Iran and Syria, has stated that it recognizes “West Jerusalem” as the capital. Tel Aviv has many wonderful attributes, but being the capital of Israel isn’t one of them. As the saying goes, while everyone is entitled to their own opinions, no one is entitled to their own facts.
In 2012, The Guardian, a British tabloid known for its harsh treatment of Israel, took the unusual step (under threat of legal action) to correct its own “Tel Aviv” artifice in a photo caption. After duly noting that the international community does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the paper’s editors confessed, “It is wrong to state that Tel Aviv — [Israel’s] financial and diplomatic centre — is the capital. The style guide has been amended accordingly.”
It seems implausible that, of all people, the keepers of The Guardian’s style guide have a better grasp of Middle Eastern geopolitical facts than a former Acting Director of the CIA. In Mr. Morell’s own words, there must be an “alternative explanation.”
Stephen B. Kaplitt is a lawyer in New York and was a Senior Advisor at the US State Department during the Bush administration.