Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

10 Dec

[Prefatory Note: This post is a slightly modified version of an article published in the global edition of the Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, on December 8, 2017.]

 Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

 Those who speak on behalf of Israel like to defend Donald Trump’s provocative decision of December 6th to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel with this contention: “Israel is the only state in the world that is not allowed to locate its capital in a national city of its choice.” It seems like an innocent enough proclamation, and even accurate pushback against global double standards, until one considers the political, moral, and legal dimensions of the actual situation.


With the benefit of just a moment’s reflection, a more thoughtful formulation of the issue would be: “Israel is the only state in the world whose government dares to locate its capital in a city located beyond its sovereign borders and subject to superior competing claims.” Granted, Israel has declined to date to define its borders for purposes of international law, presumably to leave room for its own further territorial expansion until the whole of the promised land as understood to comprise biblical Israel is effectively made subject to Israeli sovereign control. At stake, in particular, is the West Bank, which is known within Israel by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria, signifying Israel’s outlier belief that the ethnic and religious heritage of the Jewish people takes precedence over modern international law.


Further reflection casts additional doubt on this Trump/Netanyahu approach to the status of Jerusalem. It is helpful to go back at least 70 years to the controversial UN partition proposals set forth in General Assembly Resolution 181. Israel over the years has often congratulated itself on its acceptance of 181, which it contrasts with the Palestinian rejection. Palestinians suffered massive dispossession and expulsion in the war that ensued in 1947, known as the Nakba among Palestinians. Israel has argued over the years that its acceptance of 181 overrides the grievances attributable to the Nakba, including the denial to Palestinians of any right to return to their homes or place of habitation however deep and authentic their connections with the land and regardless of how persuasive their claims of Palestinian identity happen to be. What Israelis want the world to forget in the present setting is the UN treatment of Jerusalem that was integral to the 181 approach. Instead, Israel has sold the false story to the world that 181 was exclusively about the division of territory, and thus the bits about Jerusalem contained in the resolution can be ignored without comment, and deserve to be long forgotten.


What the UN actually proposed in GA Res. 181, and what Israel ‘accepted’ in 1947 was that the city of Jerusalem, in deference to its connections with Palestinians and Jewish national identity, should not be under the sovereign control of either people, but internationalized and subject to UN administration. Beyond the difficulty of reconciling Jewish and Palestinian claims to the city, the symbolic and religious significance of Jerusalem to the three monotheistic religions provided a parallel strong rationale for internationalization that has, if anything, further vindicated with the passage of time.


It can be argued by proponents of Trump’s recognition that even the Palestinians and the Arab World (by virtue of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative) have silently replaced the internationalization of Jerusalem with the so-called ‘two-state solution’ in which the common assumption of both sides is that Jerusalem would be shared in ways that allowed both Israel and Palestine to establish their respective capital within the city limits. Most two-state plans called for the Palestinian capital to be located in East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied for the past 50 years, that is, ever since the 1967 War. The clarity of this conviction is what explains the view that the thorny question of the relationship of both Israel and Palestine to the disposition of Jerusalem should be addressed at the last stage of peace negotiations. But suppose that the prospect of genuine peace negotiations is postponed indefinitely, then what? The geopolitical effort to fill this vacuum is undertaken at the expense of UN authority, as well as international law and international morality.


Here again we encounter an awkward split between what Israel claims (as reinforced by U.S. foreign policy) and what international law allows. Israel after the war ended in 1967 immediately asserted that the whole of Jerusalem was ‘the eternal capital’ of the Jewish people. Tel Aviv went even further. It expanded by Israeli legal decree the area encompassed by the city of Jerusalem, almost doubling its size and incorporating a series of Palestinian communities in the process. Israel acted unilaterally and unlawfully, against unified opposition within the UN, in defiance of world public opinion, and even in the face of rebuke by such a widely respected moral authority figure as Pope Francis.


East Jerusalem, at least, is ‘Occupied Territory’ according to international humanitarian law, and as such is subject to the Geneva Conventions. The Fourth Geneva Convention governs ‘belligerent occupation,’ and rests on the basic legal norm that an Occupying Power should take no steps, other than those justified by imperative security considerations, to diminish the rights and prospects of a civilian population living under occupation. In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Israel’s actions designed to obliterate East Jerusalem as a distinct ‘occupied’ territory have met with universal legal and political condemnation within the UN. For Trump to depart from this international consensus is not only striking heavy blows against the U.S. role as intermediary in any future peace process, but also mindlessly scrapping the two-state approach as the agreed basis of peace without offering an alternative, leaving the impression that whatever reality Israel imposes the United States will accept, giving scant attention to international concerns or Palestinian rights.


Returning to the burning question as to why Israel should be denied the right to locate its capital wherever it wishes, as other states do, it is clarifying to reformulate the Israeli claim: “Does any state have the right to establish its capital in a city that is ‘occupied’ rather than under the exclusive sovereign authority of the territorial government?” This is especially relevant in this instance, given the general agreement within the international community that the Palestinian right of self-determination includes the right to have its national capital both within its territory and in Jerusalem.


Trump’s initiative tries to ease the pain by the confusing accompanying assertion that the final disposition of Jerusalem’s borders is something for the parties to decide as part of final status negotiations, that is, at the end of the diplomatic endgame. Aside from Israel’s belief that it need not make further concessions for the sake of peace, a geopolitical assertion of support for Israel’s approach to Jerusalem, especially without the backing of the Arab League, the UN, and the European Union is worse than an empty gesture. It uses an iron fist on behalf of the stronger party, where a minimal respect for law, morality, and justice would counsel giving support for the well-grounded claims of the weaker side, or at least staying neutral.


The harm done by the Trump initiative on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and declared intention to start the process of moving the embassy is impossible to assess fully at this time. Whether there will be an upsurge in resistance violence, political extremism, anti-American terrorism, and wider warfare is now essentially unknowable, although the stage has been recklessly arranged so that these developments seem more likely to occur than earlier, and if they do, will be treated as outcomes of Trump’s faulty diplomacy.


What is already evident on the basis of the decision itself is the severe damage done to the global and regional leadership reputation of the United States. As well, the authority of the United Nations has been shown to be no match for geopolitical resolve, and international law and world public opinion have been pushed aside. For the Trump presidency the special relationship with Israel has been enlarged beyond previous outer limits and the part of the Trump base that wanted these policies has been appeased for the moment. Prospects for a diplomacy based on the equality of rights of Palestinians and Israelis have been reduced to zero, and thus no just end of the Palestinian ordeal can be foreseen. Overall, it is not a pleasant balance sheet of gains and losses if evaluated from the perspective of American grand strategy in the Middle East, and if the wider regional setting of Iran’s spreading influence is taken into account, the situation looks even worse.

14 Responses to “Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel”

  1. Admin December 11, 2017 at 1:14 am #

    A good analysis.

  2. Fred Skolnik December 11, 2017 at 4:45 am #

    This is an incredibly myopic representation of the issue of Jerusalem. First, even the United Nations recognizes that the idea of Jerusalem as an international city under UN auspices is a dead letter and asserts time and again, like everyone else in the world, that its final disposition is a matter for negotiation between the two sides. That is precisely how the Secretary-General responded to Trump’s declaration. Secondly, West Jerusalem is the de facto capital of Israel and the place where all foreign diplomats present their credentials without any qualms whatsoever. What is gained by pretending otherwise. Third, Trump’s declaration did not determine what the borders of Jewish Jerusalem will be. Most of the eastern Arab neighborhoods are in fact suburbs of the core city and could very easily continue to be called el-Kuds and even serve as the Palestinian capital in a genuine settlement. The real issue happens to be the Old City. If you concerned yourself a little more with reality than with vilifying Israel, you might even contribute something to resolving it.

    • Richard Falk December 11, 2017 at 11:35 am #

      Your points are reasonable, and deserve to be considered.

      Your continued reliance on demeaning insults are not.

      • Fred Skolnik December 12, 2017 at 12:17 am #

        It is not that these points “deserve” to be considered. They will be considered, and that is the difference between reality and polemics.

      • Park John December 17, 2017 at 2:16 am #

        ///Your continued reliance on demeaning insults are not.///

        well said

  3. Sean Breathnach December 11, 2017 at 5:52 am #

    Dear Professor, I very much agree with your analysis. What I cannot understand, is why the US was ever thought of as an honest broker. Hopefully Trump’s declaration will be a wake up call to the Palestinian Authority, who for too long have gone along with this charade that the US is an honest broker.

    • Richard Falk December 11, 2017 at 11:32 am #

      What distinguishes Trump is the abandonment of the posture and pretension, and a shift
      to a Netanyahu posture of geopolitical diktat.

  4. Beau Oolayforos December 11, 2017 at 9:42 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    It seems one more example of cherry-picking when the Israeli government endorses General Assembly resolution 181 while flouting Security Council # 242, etc.

    Without for a moment minimizing the importance of this issue, the blanket media coverage of it makes me leery of a smoke-screen. Scarcely reported, for example, is the admittedly unsurprising White House move to opt out of international efforts to re-settle refugees. The cruelty and callousness are utterly in Trumpian ‘character’ : however much suffering and displacement their policies create, they will refuse to have anything to do with assuagement.

  5. Jerry Alatalo December 11, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

    Donald Trump had the option of stating in his incendiary announcement that “West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel instead of “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel” – but he declined that option. Why?

    Donald Trump could have taken the time during the announcement to highlight important historical facts, and outline his vision of a “solution” for the seemingly endless Israel-Palestine conflict – but he chose not to. Why?

    Donald Trump’s short prepared address to the world, read from a teleprompter, contained generalities flavored by high-sounding morality-suggestive language without specifics, nor any in-depth explanation of his decision-making process leading to the action. Why?

    Perhaps Mr. Trump – understanding the profound level of increase in worldwide public awareness concerning the long history of false flag events and covert operations, engineered for the sole purpose of initiating or escalating war – took the ignoble action to provoke “real flag” events, in a Machiavellian attempt at “alternative” war engineering.

  6. zionistsarenotjews December 26, 2017 at 2:07 am #

    Excellent analysis. Donald Trump is a member of 0rganized crime judging by his “friends” and his attitude (total contempt for all law enforcement agencies and laws.The US should disarm both parties before insisting on “negotiations.” Hard to see how there can be ‘fair negotiations when one side has the most advanced military hardware available and the other resorts to throwing rocks. But I”m not unbiased, when a Russian atheist (Jewish settler) is allowed to run over a US citizen (college girl from Washington, Rachel Corrie) with a bulldozer and murder her with impunity, I have zero use for Israel or the useless politicians who allowed Israel to investigate and declare they are innocent.

    BTW, don’t’ forget UNSCR 242 that reiterated land can not be captured by force. Israel is the same size it was in 1947. Jerisalem is not in Israel. The bible is not a legally recognizable deed.


    • Kata Fisher December 26, 2017 at 4:06 pm #

      A note: Anyone who believes that humanity got its civilization from the biblical laws is one absolute human-idiot! Further, only ecclesiastical monks and their Nobel families were only civilized humans throughout entire recent Greco-Roman/Hellenistic and/or Western World. We Don’t think that Martin Luther was ecclesiastical monk – he was heretically a Psychopath – with a laws for civilization/s … all civil in nature – but so called biblical , and he has had one unnatural, and abominations filled mind. He was unnatural human, all together. Italian priests have best, accuretly compiled bibliography records on all heretics throughout the history – it’s frustrations … just as it is now – but 100 multiplied due to the lawyers such as Martin Luther, the monk-himself! When I face my self with reading his Theology — I knew that He was in satanic seals. Absolutly enjoyed learning about his followers.


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