Capital, seat of government or a town in limbo: World still divided over an ‘undivided’ Jerusalem

Capital, seat of government or a town in limbo: World still divided over an ‘undivided’ Jerusalem

A statistics book by the UN, of all bodies, grants Israel the right to assert its capital claim, while leaving the Palestinians with Ramallah. It's an anomaly that highlights an unrelenting dispute

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative photo of aerial view of Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of aerial view of Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

If even the White House refuses to call Jerusalem Israel’s capital, you might think the United Nations surely wouldn’t either. But in one official document, the UN unequivocally lists Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — with no ifs, ands or buts.

It’s an anomaly that highlights the ongoing dispute over Jerusalem’s status — in diplomatic and media circles — 62 years after Israel proclaimed it the capital, 45 years after it captured the Old City and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, and 32 years after it then claimed the “complete, united city” as its capital.

The 2011 edition of the UN’s World Statistics Pocketbook lists Jerusalem as Israel’s “capital city” — not the country’s “seat of government” (like the BBC), and not noting that it lacks “international recognition” and that its final status needs to be determined by negotiations with the Palestinians (like the US tends to).

“Capital city and population in 2011 – Jerusalem 790,000,” the pocketbook, which was published this year in New York by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Statistics Division, states of the city on page 98.

Surprisingly, too, the capital of the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” is not listed as East Jerusalem. Rather, the book identifies Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority’s administrative offices, as capital.

A note inside the pocketbook states that its designation “of any specific city as a capital city is done solely on the basis of the designation as reported by the country or area.”

That’s exactly the point Israeli officials make when faced with people or institutions who refuse to call Jerusalem the capital: every country has the right to decide its own capital. But it begs a question: Why, then, is Ramallah listed as the Palestinian capital, when that’s surely not “the designation as reported by the country or area”?

In response to a Times of Israel query, a Jerusalem-based UN official said that, the statistics book notwithstanding, the UN’s position vis-a-vis Israel’s capital is based on past Security Council resolutions. “According to these resolutions, the United Nations does not recognize Israel’s claim that ‘Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.’ It also rejects the State of Israel’s definition of the boundaries of the city including East Jerusalem and territory east of the Green Line in the occupied Palestinian Territory.”

“The UN Secretary-General has repeatedly emphasized that the International community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, which remains part of occupied Palestinian territory, and that the status of the city as the capital of two states — Israel and a state of Palestine — must be resolved through negotiations,” added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In private conversations, UN officials said the book’s characterization of the capitals of Israel and the Palestinian territory contradict the UN’s political position and should be amended in future editions.

The diplomats’ view

For most Israelis, the matter is self-evident — even Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai happily admits that Zion trumps his metropolis on the Mediterranean. “We are Israel’s financial center and cultural center. But there’s one thing we are not: We are not Israel’s capital,” he said last week.

But in the international arena, the debate about Jerusalem’s status was rekindled recently, when the BBC didn’t list any capital for Israel on its special website for the London Olympics. The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to protest, repeatedly, even after the website was changed to state that Jerusalem is Israel’s “seat of government, though most embassies are in Tel Aviv.”

Last week, White House press secretary Jay Carney resolutely refused to respond to reporters’ questions as to what the US considers Israel’s capital. “You know our position,” Carney said and tried to move on to a different topic. The White House later released a statement reiterating that Jerusalem’s status “is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”

During his Israel visit this week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney unequivocally declared Jerusalem to be “the capital of Israel.” While Netanyahu was pleased with the endorsement, it angered the Palestinians and the leaders of several other countries, including Iran and China. White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest sniped that Romney’s position differs from that of former US presidents, including Republicans like Ronald Reagan. “It’s the view of this administration that the capital is something that should be determined in final status negotiations between the parties,” Earnest said.

Still, the State Department and the CIA Factbook both call Jerusalem Israel’s capital. (Their respective websites explain that Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950 and add that the US “like nearly all other countries, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv.”)

The website of the British Foreign Office states: “Israel maintains that Jerusalem is its capital city, a claim not recognised by the UK and the international community. The UK locates its embassy in Tel Aviv.” The French Foreign Ministry likewise states that Israel determined its capital to be Jerusalem, “despite the absence of an international agreement on the city’s status.”

Israel’s entry on the homepage of the German Foreign Ministry features a nuanced distinction: “Capital (internationally not recognized): Jerusalem.” Among the major European nations, the Italian Foreign Ministry website would most satisfy the Israeli government: “Capitale: Gerusalemme,” is says in bold letters, explaining only in a separate line underneath that this designation has not been recognized by the international community.

“It’s perplexing that so many Western countries refuse to state that Jerusalem is our capital,” an Israeli diplomatic source told The Times of Israel. “After all, everyone says they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose outcome would see West Jerusalem as capital for Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital for Palestine. By denying our right to declare Jerusalem our capital they go against their own logic.”

In this context it should be noted that the international community does not recognize the annexation of East Jerusalem, which Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War. On July 30, 1980, the Knesset passed the Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, which declared that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” Less than a month later, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 478, saying it was “deeply concerned” over the law’s enactment and declaring it “null and void.” In addition, the resolution called upon nations with diplomatic missions in Jerusalem to withdraw them from the city.

Since the international community recognizes that when Israel says Jerusalem it means all of it, most governments fear recognizing “Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital would prejudge negotiations about splitting the city.

Contradictory media

But official bodies are just one part of the picture. The way the media portrays the status of Jerusalem probably has a greater influence on public perception than governmental definitions. That may be why Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, wrote no fewer than three letters last month to the BBC’s Middle East bureau chief asking him to list Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. After Regev’s first letter, the broadcast corporation altered the entry for Israel on its site for the Olympics — from not mentioning any capital city at all to stating that Israel’s “seat of government” is in Jerusalem, “though most embassies are in Tel Aviv.” The BBC ignored Regev’s subsequent letters, and calls from other institutions, to actually designate Jerusalem the country’s capital.

The Guardian's website
The Guardian’s website (screenshot)

Some newspapers have decided for themselves. The Guardian consistently gives Tel Aviv capital status. In April, the London-based paper apologized for “wrongly” having called Jerusalem Israel’s capital a few days earlier, running this correction: “The caption on a photograph featuring passengers on a tram in Jerusalem observing a two-minute silence for Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, wrongly referred to the city as the Israeli capital. The Guardian style guide states: ‘Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel; Tel Aviv is.’”

In fact, the paper’s style guide now states that Jerusalem “should not be referred to as the capital of Israel: it is not recognised as such by the international community.” The guide acknowledges that the Knesset designated the city as the country’s capital but adds that a UN resolution declared this status null and void. “Jerusalem is the seat of government and Tel Aviv is the country’s diplomatic and financial centre,” the guide states now.

El Pais: ‘In 1951, Israel decided unilaterally that Jerusalem would be the state’s capital and Tel Aviv its seat of government’

The Spanish El Pais newspaper’s style guide also tells writers to avoid referring to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, because the holy city “has a status of internationality, protected by the United Nations since 1949.” It is unclear what the editors are referring to, but they may have had in mind the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which defined the city as a corpus separatum, meaning that it would neither belong to the Jewish nor to the Arab state to be created in Mandatory Palestine.

The next sentence in El Pais’s style guide entry on Jerusalem is flat wrong: “In 1951, Israel decided unilaterally that Jerusalem would be the state’s capital and Tel Aviv its seat of government.” The Israeli government did no such thing. Perhaps the editors were thinking about Basic Law: The Knesset, which was passed in 1958 and established that the “place of sitting of the Knesset is Jerusalem.” None of Israel’s Basic Laws mentions Tel Aviv.

The Foreign Ministry, unsurprisingly, is scornful of El Pais’s treatment of Jerusalem. “This is complete nonsense, no two words in this paragraph make any sense,” said spokesman Yigal Palmor. “It’s a complete mix-up of false, partly true and distorted bogus facts.”

Some international news outlets accept Israel’s right to name its own capital. The New York Times Almanac and the country lexicon of the German Der Spiegel news magazine, for example, list Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without caveats. This week, an article for German state-funded television station ARD referred to “the government in Tel Aviv,” but after angry reader comments the text was quickly altered and now indicates that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his colleagues work out of Jerusalem.

The New York-based Columbia Journalism Review, which is published by the Ivy League university’s prestigious graduate school of journalism, last month ran a correction diametrically opposed to those printed in the Guardian. After an article referred to Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital, the magazine’s editors added a correction to the article’s online version, stating that “Jerusalem is the capital.”

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