This article was originally published on December 6, 2017 and was updated ahead of the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018.
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Some confusion followed President Trump’s December 6, 2017, announcement that he intended to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For example, Trump’s secretary of state at the time, Rex Tillerson, soon remarked that the move would not be happening in the near future – almost certainly not before the end of Trump’s first term as president (that is, by January 2021).
Tillerson himself was soon out of a job, though not before signing off, in late February, on a plan to move the embassy, at least symbolically, to the capital on May 14.
What remains unclear is whether the United States now recognizes Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, in the municipal boundaries as Israel currently defines them, or whether its recognition only applies to western Jerusalem. Does it still hold to the principle that the city’s ultimate status, and its boundaries, should be decided by Israel and the Palestinians in negotiations, or does it accept the finality of Israel’s determination that the united city is the “eternal” and exclusive property of Israel? That, too, is unclear.
What is clear is that the United States will not be the last state to move its embassy uphill from the coastal city of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In the few months since Trump’s dramatic announcement, at least four more countries have expressed, in various ways, their intention to follow the American example.
Just two days after the festive rededication of the U.S. Consulate in the neighborhood of Arnona as the new U.S. Embassy, Guatemala will also transfer its embassy to the capital, and Paraguay is expected to follow suit by the end of the month. Honduras, too, has announced plans to transfer its legation to Jerusalem.
For Guatemala, however, the move to Jerusalem will actually be a return. In fact, there was a period in Israel’s short history when it was one of at least 16 states that had their ambassadors stationed in the city.
Three of them were African nations – Ivory Coast, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Kenya; 11 were from Latin American countries – Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela, in addition to Guatemala – which began opening embassies there as early as the 1950s; as well as the Netherlands and Haiti.
The stationing of their embassies in Jerusalem did not constitute de jure recognition of the city as Israel’s capital: the universal consensus was and remains that the status of Jerusalem must be decided upon by Israel and the Palestinians in negotiations.
Though this seems very far away today, the general expectation has always been that with the establishment of a Palestinian state, both it and Israel would share the city as a joint capital – the former based in the east, and the latter in the west.
On the other hand, the lack of official recognition is not tantamount to a boycott of Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government. Foreign ambassadors come to the president’s residence in the capital to present their credentials when they take up their positions. And, more generally, foreign officials regularly visit Jerusalem to meet and work with their Israeli counterparts.
So how did Jerusalem go from hosting 16 embassies to zero? The first blow occurred after the Yom Kippur War, when Ivory Coast, Zaire and Kenya all severed relations with Israel following a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Algiers in September 1973. Though all three eventually restored relations with Israel – Zaire in 1981, Ivory Coast in 1986 and Kenya in 1988 – ultimately their reopened legations were based in the Tel Aviv area.
The remaining 13 states shuttered their Jerusalem embassies in 1980, following the Knesset’s passage of the Basic Law on Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel, which stated that the city would remain the “complete and united capital of Israel.”
Though the law did not substantially change the situation that had existed on the ground since Israel had reunited the divided city in June 1967, expanding its boundaries by a factor of three, the UN Security Council perceived the move as a provocation and condemned it as a violation of international law. Security Council Resolution 478 in August 1980 called upon member states to remove their diplomatic missions from Jerusalem.
Although both Costa Rica and El Salvador brought their embassies back to West Jerusalem for a spell, beginning in 1984, by 2006 they had once again left the city. (Bolivia broke off relations with Israel altogether in 2009.)
In the meantime, Israel continued to take demonstrative steps to strengthen its hold on an undivided Jerusalem, expanding the 1980 Basic Law in 2014 with an amendment requiring that any decision to withdraw from part of Jerusalem (or the Golan Heights) be approved by a Knesset super-majority of 80 members, as well as a public referendum on the question.
From the UN’s point of view, Jerusalem remains a corpus separatum, a “bubble” that doesn’t belong to any state. When this was initially proposed as part of the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine, it was intended to be the city’s permanent status – an international city holy to three major religions and accessible to all of the world’s citizens. Israel’s pre-state government accepted the plan, but the Palestinians did not.
When the War of Independence ended in 1949, the armistice agreements left Jordan in control of the city’s eastern neighborhoods and Israel those of the west. A short time later, the two countries officially annexed the sections they occupied, with Israel declaring in 1950 that Jerusalem was its eternal capital and an inseparable part of the state.
In his 2001 book “Jerusalem: The Contested City,” political scientist Menachem Klein described negotiations that went on between Israel and Jordan prior to 1950, in which they attempted to agree on a plan for the division of the city. For Israel, the top priority was to have access to the Western Wall in the Old City, as well as safe passage to the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. To those ends, at one point it offered to cede to Jordan largely Arab-populated neighborhoods in the city’s south, including the German Colony, Katamon, Baka and even Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. This was intended to give the Jordanians territorial contiguity in its eastern and southern parts.
Though the two countries got as far as drafting an agreement on Jerusalem in December 1949, they never signed it. A few months later, negotiations stalled over these issues and also the status of the Negev and the Latrun area between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Though it hardly threatened international hostilities, a 1952 case in the Jerusalem District Court provided some evidence of how complex the implications of the city’s contested legal situation can be.
In a 2011 paper, legal scholar Prof. Ruth Lapidot described the case of a driver employed by the Belgian Consulate in West Jerusalem, hitting and killing a local resident, one Mr. Shababo.
When Shababo’s family filed a civil case against the driver and the consulate in the district court, the defense claimed that Israel’s courts had no jurisdiction in the matter – not because the driver, Roger Heilen, had diplomatic immunity, but because the accident had taken place in Jerusalem, which the international community did not recognize as being under Israeli sovereignty. The court dismissed the claim.