The president’s guide to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

Changing the status of the entire city could derail Trump’s peace plan, while naming ‘West Jerusalem’ will disappoint Israelis; hence, he’ll likely remain ambiguous

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in front of the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa compound in the old city of Jerusalem, on August 14, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
Palestinian protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in front of the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa compound in the old city of Jerusalem, on August 14, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)

The United States had eight capitals before settling on Washington, DC. So who are the Americans to deny Israelis’ right to determine their own?

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin argued along those lines last week at a conference about Jerusalem’s legal status, urging the US administration to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognize the city as Israel’s eternal capital.

As opposed to other countries, Israel has only ever had one capital city, Elkin noted.

“The United States, for example, had eight temporary capitals before President George Washington signed the Residence Act, on July 16, 1790, stipulating the creation of a permanent capital city along the banks of the Potomac River — what is now known at Washington, DC,” he said.

Elkin was likely referring to the fact that between 1774 and 1790, the US Congress and its predecessor bodies convened in Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Philadelphia, Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton, and New York, before Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison agreed on the passage of the “Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States.”

“No one denies that Washington is the capital of the United States,” Elkin said. “No other country would presume to suggest that New York or Los Angeles would be a more fitting capital for the United States, and yet with Israeli this is the case.”

On Monday, US President Donald Trump failed to sign a waiver that would postpone the relocation of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a waiver has been required by US law every six months since 1995, in the absence of actually moving the embassy. He is widely expected to issue a waiver later this week.

The US Embassy building in Tel Aviv, December 28, 2016. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

But at the same time, he is also reportedly poised to publicly recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move welcomed by Israel and bitterly opposed by the Palestinians — who claim the eastern part of the city as their capital — and the entire Arab and Muslim world.

But will Trump recognize all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or only its Western part, as Russia did earlier this year? Depending on the wording of his expected declaration, Israelis may end up disappointed.

When the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on April 6 saying that Moscow considers “West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Israeli officials remained mum. It stands to reason that some of them rejoiced over the first-ever recognition by a foreign power of Israeli sovereignty over any part of city. But they also realized that recognizing only the Western part of it would appear to deny Israel’s claims to the eastern part, including the Old City, which it captured in 1967 and subsequently effectively annexed.

Russia’s statement, for instance, specifically said that Moscow views “East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.” Not wanting to anger the Arab world and hoping to keep alive his dream of brokering the “ultimate” Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Trump could choose a similar formulation.

Would that be good or bad for Israel?

One might argue that partial recognition is better than none. After all, the international community has thus far refused to recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of the city. Isn’t an American recognition of West Jerusalem — where the Knesset, the President’s Residence, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Supreme Court are located, as well as most Jewish neighborhoods — a step in the right direction?

Not necessarily, said Prof. Shlomo Slonim, a Hebrew University expert on US politics and constitutional law.

“Recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a step toward redividing the city,” he said.

Ministers Yariv Levin and Miri Regev would presumably agree with Slonim. Last week, they threatened to withdraw state funding from the upcoming Giro d’Italia cycling tournament if organizers continued to say the race would take place in “West Jerusalem.”

“In Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, there is no east or west. There is one unified Jerusalem,” the two Likud ministers said in a joint statement. The event organizers quickly apologized and removed the word “west” from their press material — to the annoyance of the Palestinians.

A Jewish worshiper holds the four plant species as he attends the annual priestly blessing during the Sukkot holiday at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 8, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which was passed by large majorities in the Senate and the House but was left unsigned by then-president Bill Clinton and unimplemented by every president since, is very clear about the parts of the city that it refers to.

“Jerusalem should remain an undivided city,” it says in Section 3. Since then, countless Congressional resolutions have reaffirmed the US lawmakers’ conviction that a united Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the Jewish state.

In September 2016, after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, Trump — then the Republican candidate for president — vowed to recognize a united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Mr. Trump acknowledged that Jerusalem has been the eternal capital of the Jewish People for over 3,000 years, and that the United States, under a Trump administration, will finally accept the long-standing Congressional mandate to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel,” according to a readout of the meeting.


Posted by Donald J. Trump on Sunday, September 25, 2016

On the other hand, Trump is eager to broker an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal, and he knows that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could be “the kiss of death” to the peace process, as Palestinian officials have warned.

In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump thus has three options, said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US politics at Bar-Ilan University.

“He can either say ‘Jerusalem,’ ‘West Jerusalem’ or ‘United Jerusalem.’ There is debate about the right wording even within the administration,” he said.

Most likely, Trump will merely say “Jerusalem,” thus allowing all sides to interpret his statement as they wish, Gilboa speculated. Israel will then be able to cite the law and the president’s previous commitments in arguing he meant the entire city. The Palestinians, meanwhile, will be able to cling to the hope that he was only referring to West Jerusalem.

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