Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. embassy to Israel

Cruz Goes Back to the Future on Jerusalem

Once upon a time, American politicians proved their pro-Israel bona fides to voters and donors by regularly proclaiming their support for moving the United States Embassy to the State of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Support for moving the embassy, which is kept out of the country’s capital because of America’s continuing non-recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, was universal among both Democrats and Republicans and both parties regularly included planks to that effect in their platforms when nominating candidates for president. But eventually even the most ardent members of the pro-Israel community figured out that this was a cheap pander and stopped talking so much about it. But Senator Ted Cruz, who is a likely 2016 presidential candidate, hasn’t gotten that memo and he has proposed a new bill with fellow Republican Dean Heller of Nevada that will force the State Department to finally move the embassy. This is a futile exercise, but the text of the bill as well as the collective yawn it has induced from the pro-Israel community tells us a lot about both Cruz and the current state of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Once upon a time, American politicians proved their pro-Israel bona fides to voters and donors by regularly proclaiming their support for moving the United States Embassy to the State of Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Support for moving the embassy, which is kept out of the country’s capital because of America’s continuing non-recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, was universal among both Democrats and Republicans and both parties regularly included planks to that effect in their platforms when nominating candidates for president. But eventually even the most ardent members of the pro-Israel community figured out that this was a cheap pander and stopped talking so much about it. But Senator Ted Cruz, who is a likely 2016 presidential candidate, hasn’t gotten that memo and he has proposed a new bill with fellow Republican Dean Heller of Nevada that will force the State Department to finally move the embassy. This is a futile exercise, but the text of the bill as well as the collective yawn it has induced from the pro-Israel community tells us a lot about both Cruz and the current state of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

If you are thinking that such a new bill is unnecessary, you are not entirely wrong. Back in 1995 when then Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole was preparing for his quixotic quest for the presidency in 1996, he shepherded a bill to passage that called for moving the embassy. But it also contained a waiver that allowed the president to declare that the move could not be accomplished for fear of harming the peace process or for security reasons. Since then, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have signed such a waiver every six months rendering Dole’s law as futile as his presidential ambitions. Cruz’s bill removes the waiver and would, if enforced (something that would be easier said than done), actually compel the embassy to be moved.

Cruz’s legislation also calls for the State Department to recognize Israel as the place of birth for those Americans born in Jerusalem, which dovetails with a 2002 law that was also passed by Congress but which the government has chosen to evade or ignore. This is a controversy that has landed in the Supreme Court as the justices are currently considering a case in which an American family is claiming the legislation passed by Congress should dictate government decisions while the administration argues that the executive branch must have the final say on foreign policy.

But the legal tangles this legislation attempts to unravel are clearly secondary to Cruz’s intent and the reaction, or lack thereof, it will generate among pro-Israel activists.

It must be acknowledged that the invocation of the embassy issue is no longer a surefire battle cry among the Jewish community. Too many politicians have made promises along these lines that they never had any intention of keeping for anyone to get too worked up about the issue. Indeed, many on the left and even some sober centrists, both here and in Israel, would prefer that Americans shut up about the embassy. Like appeals for equal prayer rights for Jews on the Temple Mount, the likely violent reaction that an embassy move would generate among Palestinians and other Muslims and Arabs would, they argue, not be worth the trouble.

Thus there was little clamor for a new Jerusalem bill and no indication that many pro-Israel Jews, outside of that minority that already support him, will be publicly thanking Cruz for his effort. Indeed, so unpopular is the Tea Party hero among most Jews, the vast majority of whom remain liberals and Democrats, that he is likely to only engender more derision for what will be called ’90s-style politics than a genuine expression of support for Israel. The fact that he could not procure a Democratic co-sponsor for his bill also tells us a lot about how disliked he is by his fellow senators on both sides of the aisle.

But while cynicism about any Jerusalem bill is appropriate, Cruz deserves credit for proposing something that would, in contrast to Dole’s transparent and generally ineffective pander, actually do something about the problem rather than pretend to. Unlike previous efforts, a waiver-free Jerusalem bill is exactly what it says it is. That’s in keeping with Cruz’s brusque take-no-prisoners style that has alienated Republicans and Democrats. But it is also exactly what the situation requires.

Though this bill has little chance of surviving a certain Obama veto if it passes, it is nonetheless a productive suggestion that might actually send a message to the Palestinians that their attempts to bypass the peace process by way of the United Nations has consequences. Moving the embassy wouldn’t preclude Jerusalem’s division if both parties agreed to such a measure. But it does tell the Palestinians in a clear way that the United States is not prepared to indulge the fiction that Israel does not control its capital any longer. Moreover, threats of Arab violence on this subject simply lack credibility since it is not clear that an embassy move would motivate Muslims any more than the canards about Israel destroying the Temple Mount mosques.

Yet a pro-Israel community that has largely forgotten about the Jerusalem embassy question isn’t likely to rally to Cruz’s defense against administration critics on the issue. One may dismiss this as an attempt to entice Jewish donors to back his presidential bid. But like his speech last summer in which he lambasted those members of a group who attacked Israel in order to appease those who persecute Middle East Christians, Cruz has taken a correct position that will earn him little applause among those who are most concerned about the issue. This may be a pander, but instead of dismissing him as a bomb thrower or an ambitious office seeker, it would be nice if his more moderate Senate colleagues recognized that, at least in this instance, Cruz has actually offered a practical and principled solution.

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Making a Federal Case Out of Jerusalem

Last year, I suggested there was no need for President Obama to make a federal case out of Menachem Zivotofsky’s request to have “Israel” designated on his passport as his place of birth, pursuant to a law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right to that designation if they requested. My idea — which I thought might resonate with Obama — was to blame Bush!

Congress enacted the law in 2002; President Bush signed it, but said he would not enforce it; Obama had campaigned against Bush’s many signing statements, saying a president generally had only two choices – sign a bill or veto it; and Obama could have said he was simply faithfully executing a law his predecessor had signed. If he wanted, Obama could have done what President Clinton did regarding Taiwan: comply with the passport law while declaring American foreign policy remained unchanged. Case closed! But Obama proceeded to the Supreme Court, which ruled the issue can be adjudicated; and because the controversy continues, we may continue to be treated to colloquies like the one at the State Department yesterday.

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Last year, I suggested there was no need for President Obama to make a federal case out of Menachem Zivotofsky’s request to have “Israel” designated on his passport as his place of birth, pursuant to a law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right to that designation if they requested. My idea — which I thought might resonate with Obama — was to blame Bush!

Congress enacted the law in 2002; President Bush signed it, but said he would not enforce it; Obama had campaigned against Bush’s many signing statements, saying a president generally had only two choices – sign a bill or veto it; and Obama could have said he was simply faithfully executing a law his predecessor had signed. If he wanted, Obama could have done what President Clinton did regarding Taiwan: comply with the passport law while declaring American foreign policy remained unchanged. Case closed! But Obama proceeded to the Supreme Court, which ruled the issue can be adjudicated; and because the controversy continues, we may continue to be treated to colloquies like the one at the State Department yesterday.

State’s spokesperson was tortured with a series of questions about whether Jerusalem is part of Israel. Given the position the administration is still defending in court, she had to refuse to acknowledge even West Jerusalem (where Zivotofsky was born) as part of Israel. She thus repeatedly had to dodge the question, obviously acting on instructions to say only that Jerusalem is an issue to be resolved by negotiations. She gave the same answer to the question, “What is the capital of Israel?”

The reporter might have referenced the State Department website, which identifies Israel’s capital as Jerusalem (and says Israel’s area is 20,330 square kilometers, “including Jerusalem”); or the CIA website, which says the same thing; or the Department of Defense website, which is replete with references to “Jerusalem, Israel” – including a picture of Secretary Gates and Prime Minister Netanyahu “during a working lunch meeting in Jerusalem, Israel.” But for the same reason the White House scrubbed its website of references to Vice President Biden in “Jerusalem, Israel” and scrubbed references even in Bush administration documents, the official policy had to be restated yesterday no matter how the question was asked.

This all could have been avoided if the White House had followed my advice last year; ended the charade about the city that has been Israel’s capital since 1950; and stopped fighting a nine-year old boy’s passport designation in the Supreme Court and beyond. Sometimes I think the White House doesn’t read my posts.

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State Department Spin on Jerusalem Meltdown is Already Wrong

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. Read More

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.

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