What’s the capital of Israel? Israelis say it’s Jerusalem, and indeed the prime minister’s office is there, as well as the parliament, the highest court and most government ministries. But other countries consider the city disputed territory, subject to negotiation with the Palestinians. No major power recognized Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem until U.S. President Donald Trump did so on Dec. 6. World leaders from the Vatican to Tehran denounced the U.S. position, which sparked protests in the Palestinian territories and such places as Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia. In January, addressing the Israeli parliament, Vice President Mike Pence said the U.S. would open an embassy in Jerusalem by the end of 2019.
1. What’s so special about Jerusalem?
It’s sacred to followers of the three major monotheistic religions. It is home to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in the world for Jews, who come from around the world to pray at the Western Wall, the last remaining supporting wall of the biblical temple. Muslims revere the same plateau as the Noble Sanctuary, where the Al-Aqsa mosque stands as the third-holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Not far away in Jerusalem’s Old City is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians revere as the site of Jesus’s tomb. When the United Nations voted in 1947 to divide British-ruled Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, it didn’t want either side controlling Jerusalem, due to its religious resonance. Instead, it set aside the city as an international zone to be administered by a UN council of trustees.
2. So why does Israel control it?
Arab states rejected the UN partition plan for Palestine and launched a war against the fledgling Jewish state. The war left Israel in control of west Jerusalem, where the bulk of the Jewish population lived, and Jordan in control of the mostly Arab eastern side, containing the holiest sites. In 1967, Israel captured east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War and formally annexed those portions of the city to form one municipality under Israeli law. In 1980, its parliament passed a law declaring "complete and united" Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. Most nations rejected the move. The only two that complied, Costa Rica and El Salvador, eventually moved their diplomatic posts to Tel Aviv, 70 kilometers to the west, where all the other embassies are located, under pressure from Arab states.
3. Does anyone still envision an international zone?
Not really. Vatican officials have periodically called for an "internationally guaranteed special statute" for Jerusalem. However, the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, acting collectively to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians, have embraced the position that it’s up to the two sides to negotiate the status of Jerusalem. Trump clarified after recognizing that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital that the U.S. takes no position on "the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.” The issue has been among the knottiest in peace talks since the first Israeli-Palestinian accord, the 1993 Oslo agreement. Palestinians insist the city must be their capital as well. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government says Jerusalem will remain the “undivided and eternal capital” of the Jewish people.
4. What have other presidents done?
Like Trump before Dec. 6, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush vowed as candidates to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem but backed away once in office amid warnings that the move could spark Arab violence or scuttle peace talks. The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1995 requiring that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem by 1999, but the legislation included a provision allowing the president to waive the move for six months in the interest of national security -- and that’s what has happened ever since. Before leaving the White House, Barack Obama signed the waiver for a last time on Dec. 1, 2016. Trump renewed it for six months on June 1 and again in December -- even after recognizing the city as Israel’s capital.
5. What would moving the embassy entail?
While Pence said the U.S. would open an embassy in Jerusalem by the end of 2019, the U.S. currently has no facility there big enough to house all the work of its Tel Aviv embassy. Since 1989 the U.S. has leased a large plot of land in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, presumably for a future embassy, but building it would take years. There are some potential solutions, however. Robert Satloff, head of the pro-Israel Washington Institute, has argued that Trump could fulfill his promise by moving the ambassador’s office to an existing U.S. facility in Jerusalem. The U.S. has a consulate-general in western Jerusalem, which according to its website serves as the "de facto representative" of the U.S. government to the Palestinian Authority. Changing the placard on the existing facility from "consulate" to "embassy" could be a way to fulfill Pence’s timeline even before a bona fide embassy is complete.
The Reference Shelf
- An article in Foreign Policy looks at the legal aspects of the embassy debate.
- A paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy examines the challenges of moving the embassy.
- Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake assessed the many risks of an embassy move.
- A monograph by historian Walid Khalidi concludes that the plot of Jerusalem land leased by Israel to the U.S. is confiscated Palestinian property.
- Author Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book, "Jerusalem: The Biography."
- QuickTake explainers on the two-state solution and Israeli settlements.
— With assistance by Michael Arnold