The Controversial Sovereignty over the City of Jerusalem

By: Ra'fat Aldajani Drew Christiansen

June 22, 2015

National Catholic Reporter, June 22, 2015

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a legal milestone on sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem. In a 6-3 ruling, the justices ruled that the U.S. Congress had overstepped its bounds when it passed a law in 2002 requiring the State Department to list Israel as a birth country in U.S. passports for Jerusalem-born Americans. By doing so, the court upheld the State Department's decision to disallow the Israel listing in passports.

No U.S. president has ever officially acknowledged Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem since the state of Israel was first recognized by President Harry Truman in 1948. The United States, along with most of the international community, has taken the position that no country has sovereignty over Jerusalem until its status is negotiated in a Middle East peace deal.

Israel's supporters in Congress, however, have repeatedly tried to force a different policy, first seeking to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem through the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 and then mandating that the State Department allow U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their place of birth in 2002.

Critics of the State Department policy are using the court's ruling to depict the Obama administration as hostile to Israel. What is forgotten is that while Jerusalem is the spiritual center of the Jewish people and the self-declared capital of Israel, every Democratic and Republican administration from Truman through Obama has made the political diplomatic decision not to grant official recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the city the official U.S. recognition.

The refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israeli territory is a near universal policy among Western nations. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, three U.S. presidents have declared that Jerusalem's final status can only be determined through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. At any time since 1948, a president could have moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. None has.

The manufactured lie that Obama is somehow unfriendly to Israel and to Jews is now baseline conventional wisdom throughout much of the Jewish-American community and in Israel. Obama is simply the first president to call a spade a spade when it comes to Israeli actions that undermine any future Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement damage U.S. national interests.The high court decision defines executive-congressional relations and affirms the primacy of the executive in the conduct of foreign affairs. It also serves as a harbinger as to how we can expect Israel-Palestine issues to be adjudicated in the future.

Pro-Israel lobbies have never been as strong with regard to the presidency or the courts as they are in Congress. The Supreme Court decision showed the limits of the lobbies' power. Last month's precedent is important because the Israeli occupation of Palestine is increasingly being litigated not in national legislatures, where a lobby can sway votes, but in courtrooms. It is fear of judicial independence that makes Israel so adamant in opposing the International Criminal Court.

A dozen U.S. interests far more important than the country of origin Americans want stamped on their passports would be seriously damaged by a shift in American policy on Jerusalem. They include U.S. credibility on the world stage and its relations with a quarter of a billion Arabs and 1.6 billion Muslims, almost a quarter of the world's population.

Recognizing Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem would also be a powerful recruitment tool for terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group, which is adept in recruiting fighters worldwide to its murderous cause. It would likewise seriously undermine international law, which is very specific on the territorial status of East Jerusalem.

Writing in the Israeli English-language daily Haaretz, Chemi Shalev analyzed how the back-door attempt by Congress to compel U.S. recognition of Jerusalem backfired. Shalev wrote, "If you hadn't known until now that Israel's greatest ally refuses to recognize its sovereignty over its capital in either East or West Jerusalem, you're certainly aware of it now."

The only solution for Jerusalem, as opposed to the fantasies of Israeli expansionists, is through political negotiations to share the city politically between Israel and a future Palestinian state with open and unimpeded access guaranteed for all faiths to their holy places.

Writing in the U.S. Jewish weekly Forward, Jay Michaelson explained how claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem are part of a larger pattern of Israeli expulsion of Palestinians and expansion of Israeli control of the Palestinian West Bank: "The current Israeli definition of 'united Jerusalem' is now used to justify home demolitions, land confiscation, and an expansion of municipal boundaries that now stretches the city (and the imagination) from Ramallah to the Judean Desert." He concludes, "That is exactly the 'Jerusalem' that should not be recognized by international law."

No amount of insisting that all of Jerusalem is Israel's "undivided and eternal capital" will change the reality that it never will be. It is only when Palestinian-Americans born in Jerusalem can get their passports to read "Jerusalem, Palestine" that equal recognition should be given to Israeli-Americans born in Jerusalem, too.

This blog, co-written by Drew Christiansen, S.J. and Ra'fat Aldajani, was originally posted by the National Catholic Reporter.