This morning, the State Department will begin to walk back the spectacular meltdown that was yesterday’s press briefing, wherein State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland gave the Palestinians a de facto retroactive veto over Israel’s 1949 decision to make Jerusalem its capital.
The talking point will be that the Obama administration, by insisting that the status of West Jerusalem is subject to final-status negotiations, was only reiterating the explicit policies of past administrations. If that were true, then Obama critics would be making the same points they’ve made throughout this White House’s diplomatic campaign against Israel: that Obama, by making controversies out of issues everyone had been content to leave quietly buried, was unnecessarily damaging the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the prospects for long-term Middle East peace.
As it so happens, the claim is false. Previous administrations have recognized Israel’s right to at least part of its capital city. The debate has turned on whether the Jewish State is entitled to “all” of Jerusalem, not whether it’s entitled to any part of the city. It was always about not prejudicing whether Israel would have share Jerusalem with a Palestinian state, not whether the entire city was up for grabs (let alone whether the Palestinians can retroactively veto Israel’s sovereign decision to make the parts of Jerusalem it controlled pre-1967 its capital).
White Houses have declined to move the embassy out of Tel Aviv because it would be treated as a symbolic acknowledgement of Israel’s rights over all Jerusalem, e.g. a statement that Israel wouldn’t have to share the city. Sitting on their hands on the embassy allowed presidents to dodge broader questions, which had the benefit of not running contrary to black-letter American law going back to 1995 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Until now, no administration has ever put Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem as such on the table, or implied that even West Jerusalem was up for grabs. Bush even used to insert language into his waivers stating “My administration remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”
Also, there’s this from President Clinton: “the benefits of the agreement… [include] the incorporation of most of the settlers into Israel, and the Jewish capital of Jerusalem recognized by all, not just the United States, by everybody in the world.”
Also, there’s this from President Bush: “Mr. Bush said the Palestinians must elect ‘new and different’ leaders who were not ‘compromised by terror’… As soon as the Palestinians changed their leadership, stopped terrorist attacks on Israel and moved towards democracy, the U.S. would boost their economy and push Israel into meaningful negotiations… He refused to speculate on the three major sticking points: Palestinian demands that Israel return the territory won in the 1967 war, share Jerusalem as the capital and allow millions of Palestinian refugees to return.”
Also, there’s this from Senator Barack Obama. Note that while he took back the part of the speech that spoke of Israel’s capital remaining undivided, even his clarification emphasized “that Israel has a legitimate claim on” at least part of Jerusalem. Apparently that position has changed in the last few years, but the administration shouldn’t be allowed to pretend this is just the way things have always been.