At the recent Democratic National Convention, the party platform being adopted was slightly different from the 2008 version when it came to Israel and Palestine. A sentence, with boilerplate language on the status of Jerusalem, had disappeared. Then hilarity ensued.
A party that has been under attack by its political opponents in the GOP for failing to fulfill Benjamin Netanyahu’s every wish and command scrambled to put the language back into the platform, and did so through a voice vote reminiscent of Stalinist-era vote counting. A video shows the convention chair, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villiaragosa, calling for three voice votes that clearly didn’t meet the two-thirds threshold for passage—and yet passed the reinstated language anyway. The decision, it turns out, was pre-scripted on the teleprompter. President Obama reportedly intervened personally to order the move.
So now the Democratic Party platform recognizes Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. As a matter of U.S. foreign policy, party platforms mean relatively little; in practice, no U.S. administration has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Nor is this about the green line running through the city either.
The standard official response on the question of Jerusalem from Washington is that this is an issue that must be negotiated by the parties. But non-recognition of sovereignty over Jerusalem actually predates Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The United States initially extended de facto recognition to the Israeli government in May 14, 1948 and de jure recognition of the government of Israel followed after elections in January of 1949. But the only framework of reference for the state’s territorial outline which the U.S. is on record supporting is the 1947 partition plan which was recalled in the UN resolution admitting Israel into the United Nations. In the partition plan, Jerusalem—all of it—was treated as a “Corpus Seperatum,” or a separate entity that would be neither sovereign Arab nor Jewish territory.
For the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—even West Jerusalem—would mean recognizing the legitimacy of Israeli territorial claims outside those recognized by the U.S. in the partition plan. That plan itself was not well-liked in Washington either. By the spring of 1948, the U.S. withdrew its support for the plan and when President Truman recognized Israel it almost caused a mutiny from the State Department. In short, the tradition of U.S. Presidents (who always have election interests in mind) sparring with the State Department on this issue goes back to the very inception of the modern state of Israel.
But 1967 added a new wrinkle to this complex issue. When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, it unilaterally expanded the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem so that “East Jerusalem” went from about 4 square miles to about 45 square miles. Simple arithmetic tells us that Israel unilaterally claimed and annexed approximately 40.5 square miles of the occupied West Bank into what they refer to as municipal Jerusalem. That annexed space today includes the Israeli colonies of Pisgat Ze’ev, Ramot Alon, Ramot Shlomo, Atarot, Gilo, Har Homa and so on.
So when people people argue that the U.S. should recognize Jerusalem as the “eternal, undivided capital” of Israel, what they are actually arguing for is that the United States should recognize the legitimacy of Israeli claims to land it occupied and illegally annexed and colonized.
This is an extremely dangerous principle because it means that Israel unilaterally gets to decide what is legitimately part of Israel even if the rest of the world and international law says otherwise. Such a principle cannot coexist with U.S. claims that it seeks a two-state solution.
Sadly, this is already a de facto part of American policy as Washington provides military, economic and diplomatic cover for Israel’s continued occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory while rhetorically opposing “the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”
* Yousef Munayyer is a writer and political analyst based in Washington, DC. He is currently theExecutive Director of the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development.