On May 14, the United States inaugurated its new embassy in Jerusalem. A large group of dignitaries attended and listened as speakers celebrated the historic day when the U.S. officially recognized the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
For 70 years, the United States and most of the rest of the world has refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Former prime minister Joe Clark once made a promise to move Canada’s embassy to Jerusalem, but he did not keep it once he took office. It has been U.S. law for many years that the American Embassy should be in Jerusalem. Until now, however, successive U.S. presidents have repeatedly invoked a waiver that delayed the move.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reacted to the announcement of the decision to move the embassy by stating that the U.S. could no longer be an impartial arbiter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Hamas government in Gaza has organized weekly riots every Friday for the past four weeks to protest the move, as well as the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence.
For many decades, the Arabs refused to recognize Israel as a legitimate state, so it makes sense that they don’t accept that Jerusalem is the capital of a state they don’t recognize. But why has the rest of the world refused to officially recognize something that has been true since at least 1950 – that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital?
Some argue that this is because under the 1947 partition plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be a separate entity (a corpus separatum), neither part of Israel nor the proposed Arab state. However, the Arab states uniformly rejected the partition plan, accepting neither Israel nor the separate status of Jerusalem and insisting that only a unitary state of Palestine with an Arab majority, and no more Jewish immigration, would be acceptable. Meanwhile, on the ground, Arab fighters from neighbouring countries attacked the Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem and laid siege to the city by blocking traffic from the Jewish towns and cities of the coastal plain. The Jews of Jerusalem faced starvation and military conquest.
Only the brave fighters of the Haganah prevented Jewish Jerusalem from being overwhelmed. Despite their best efforts, the Jews of the Old City were driven out, along with the Jews of Silwan. The territory lost to the Jews in Jerusalem was annexed by the Kingdom of Jordan.
When Israel established its capital in Jerusalem in 1950, no Palestinian state was established. Likewise, no corpus separatum was established in Jerusalem. It was only in 1993 that the PLO publicly agreed to recognize Israel, to abandon terrorism and to negotiate the final status of Jerusalem through bilateral discussions. As we know, these discussions have so far failed to reach any sort of agreement. Israel has made many offers, but the Palestinians have refused them all.
The corpus separatum was stillborn, as was the partition plan, and has no legal weight today. There is supposed to be a consensus that Israel’s legal borders are the 1949 armistice lines that were in place until 1967. Many international critics of Israel argue that the Jewish state should withdraw from the territories captured in 1967.
The new U.S. Embassy is in west Jerusalem, which has been part of Israel since May 15, 1948, the day the state came into existence. The U.S. has carefully stated that the embassy move is not meant to prejudge the outcome of negotiations on the final status of Jerusalem. If the borders of Israel that existed before the Six-Day War are truly recognized by the international community, then it is strange that Israel’s decision to locate its capital in Jerusalem and America’s choice to recognize that decision are matters of controversy.