Recognizing Annexation: Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem

by Joel Beinin | published May 12, 2018

The storm of opposition to President Donald Trump’s December 6, 2017 announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital was predictable, and has been, so far, ineffectual. More consequentially, in the following week Israeli forces killed four and wounded ten Palestinian protestors in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There were demonstrations around the world—in Cairo, Beirut, Tehran, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Istanbul, Tokyo and in several European and American cities. The European diplomatic community was exceptionally aroused but has done nothing substantive. There will likely be a reprise of such protests if, as he announced he “may” do, President Trump travels to Israel to inaugurate a US Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, coinciding with the seventieth anniversary of Israel’s establishment.

The White House announcement distinguishes between recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and establishing an embassy there and recognizing “the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.” In other words, the Trump administration, like all those before it, seeks to avoid acknowledging how Israel, in defiance of UN resolutions, has altered the demographic and geographic realities of the city. Since 1967 Israel has installed some 215,000 settlers in a dozen East Jerusalem neighborhoods situated to make its annexation an irreversible fact on the ground. The United States has expressed only pro forma opposition to the entire Israeli settlement project. No Israeli government has ever been willing to engage in negotiations over removing those settlers or establishing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem proper. Following the Israeli line, the Anglo-American media typically do not consider the East Jerusalem neighborhoods to be settlements or count their inhabitants among the West Bank settler population. Hence this is effectively a distinction without a difference. Israel will persist in entrenching itself in East Jerusalem with no effective opposition.

The State Department has announced that the new embassy will be temporarily housed in the annex to the US Consulate General that opened in 2010 next to the Diplomat Hotel in the Arnona neighborhood. It will take three years or longer to find a suitable site and construct a permanent building. The Consulate annex is located in the “no man’s land” between East and West Jerusalem established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.[1] Israel occupied “no man’s land” and East Jerusalem in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War and effectively annexed those territories by applying Israeli law to them on June 27. By establishing an official presence in “no man’s land,” the United States tacitly acquiesced to Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem years ago. When US Ambassador David Friedman ensconces himself in the interim embassy, he will become a settler-diplomat, a status that suits him well as he advocates that Israel annex the West Bank settlements.[2]

Palestinians, liberal Zionists and the European Union alike lamented that President Trump’s announcement would bring about the demise or at least gravely endanger a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But as Henry Seigman, former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America, acerbically observed:"Apparently word that the peace process is dead and buried never reached them. The fiction of its existence served no purpose other than to provide Netanyahu cover for his lie that the reason Israel is not already an apartheid state is that he is waiting for the resumption of the peace process with a more accommodating Palestinian leadership".[3]

That’s the way it is in the real world. But the diplomatic world, which the Palestinian Authority and liberal Zionists take as their point of reference, has different norms and can sustain convenient misrepresentations almost indefinitely. In that arena, Trump’s announcement was shocking because the United States and most of the international community have never previously recognized Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem.

According to the November 1947 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, which partitioned British Mandate Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, Jerusalem and the surrounding area, including Bethlehem, was to be put “under a special international regime and…administered by the United Nations” (as a corpus separatum or separate entity).[4] During the 1948 War, Israel occupied West Jerusalem, while Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. In 1950, after being admitted to the United Nations, Israel flaunted Resolution 181 and proclaimed Jerusalem its capital. Thirteen countries, mostly Latin American, established embassies in West Jerusalem.

In July 1980 the Knesset enacted a private members’ bill proposed by the demagogic Likud MK Ge’ula Cohen that declared, “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.”[5] The UN Security Council responded with uncharacteristic alacrity a month later by passing Resolution 478 (by a vote of 14-0 with the United States abstaining). It “censures in the strongest terms” the Israeli legislation and declares it a “violation of international law” and “null and void.”[6] Resolution 478 also requested all countries that maintained diplomatic missions in Jerusalem to withdraw them. In 2006 Costa Rica and El Salvador became the last two countries to do so. Before President Trump’s announcement, only Guatemala and El Salvador recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Since then the Czech Republic, Tanzania and Ghana have indicated they may move their embassies to Jerusalem.

Despite the international uproar it has aroused, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem is primarily about domestic politics and the inner dynamics of the Trump administration. Trump, like presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama campaigned on this issue. Trump’s promise to move the embassy was a prominent reason that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson contributed $35 million to his election campaign and another $5 million to his inauguration committee. Adelson was reportedly “furious” that Trump, apparently under the influence of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, did not fulfill his campaign promise to move the embassy on his first day in office and ceased to contribute to pro-Trump groups.[7] Ambassador Friedman, a long-time financial contributor to American Friends of Bet El, a radical West Bank settlement, lobbied for an expeditious move. Adelson has offered to pay for the new embassy in Jerusalem, which could cost $500 million or more. He can afford it—his net worth is about $40 billion.

US domestic politics increasingly means courting campaign contributions from oligarchs like Adelson and Haim Saban (a Democratic contributor close to the Clintons who, like Adelson, is also committed to “Israel first”). But moving the embassy was certainly not a response to popular citizen demand. A November 2017 Brookings Institute poll conducted by Shibley Telhami concluded that 63 percent of Americans opposed relocating the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem while 31 percent supported it.[8] Among Democrats, 81 percent opposed the move and, perhaps surprisingly, only 49 percent of Republicans supported while 44 percent opposed the move.

In contrast to much of the activist base of the Democratic Party, its current leadership, represented by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA), is emotionally attached to Israel, uncritical of the US empire and its endless wars in the greater Middle East, and beholden to the Zionist lobby. Schumer, a lobby stalwart, criticized the President’s indecisiveness on the Jerusalem move before Trump made up his mind. Schumer then proudly claimed, even before the official announcement, that he had advised Trump to declare Jerusalem the “undivided” capital of Israel—a more provocative formulation than the actual announcement.[9] Pelosi, in a statement full of Zionist lobby boilerplate, expressed only mild concern about the timing of the embassy move.[10]

Shocked by Israel’s 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip, the Bernie Sanders-Keith Ellison wing of the party has regularly spoken out against specific Israeli moves to deepen the occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank. They have been joined by a few others, including Senator Dianne Feinstein a pillar of the California Democratic Party establishment.[11] But in June 2017 the Senate, Republicans and Democrats including Bernie Sanders, voted ninety to zero in favor of Resolution 176 “Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Reunification of Jerusalem.” The resolution reaffirms the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 which states that “Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel” and requires the United States to move its embassy there. Presidents Clinton, Bush (43), Obama and even Trump, twice during 2017, evaded that obligation by certifying every six months that suspending the embassy move was necessary to protect US national security interests. In contrast to his 2017 vote, as a member of the House of Representatives Sanders sensibly voted against the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, one of only 37 Representatives to oppose it.

Sanders criticized Trump’s announcement of the embassy move on the grounds that, “It would dramatically undermine the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and severely, perhaps irreparably, damage the United States’ ability to broker that peace.”[12] So Sanders himself, even if not many of his supporters, publicly clings to what Henry Seigman called the “fiction” of the peace process.

Israel’s central position in sustaining the American Middle East imperium means that only a massive grass roots mobilization will compel any significant number of Washington elected officials to articulate a more fundamental critique of the one-state, apartheid reality in Israel/Palestine.

 





[i]
Isabel Kershner, “New US Embassy May be in Jerusalem, but Not in Israel,” The New York Times, March 7, 2018.
[ii] Jacob Magid, “US Ambassador says ‘Settlements are part of Israel,’” The Times of Israel, September 28, 2017.
[iii] Henry Siegman, “The Implications of President Trump’s Jerusalem Ploy,” The National Interest, January 23, 2018.
[iv] UN General Assembly Resolution 181, November 29, 1947, Wikisource.
[vi] UN Resolution 478, UN Information System on the Question of Palestine (UNISPAL), August 20, 1980.
[vii] Eli Clifton, “Is Sheldon Adelson Behind Trump’s Decision on Jerusalem?+972 Blog, December 5, 2017; “Adelson, Miffed at Trump over Embassy About-face, Said to Shut Spigot,” The Times of Israel, April 24, 2017.
[viii] Shibley Telhami, “The Middle East and Russia: American Attitudes on Trump’s Foreign Policy,” Brookings, December 1, 2017.
[x]Pelosi Statement on Trump Administration Declaration on Jerusalem,” Democratic Leader, December 6, 2017.
[xi] For example, see “Senators to Netanyahu: Stop Israeli Demolition of West Bank Villages,” Press Release, Dianne Feinstein Senate webpage, November 29, 2017.
[xii]Sanders Statement On Trump’s Plan to Recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital,” Bernie Sanders Senate webpage, December 5, 2017.