If U.S. President Donald Trump ever follows through on his campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the United States will be the only nation represented there. But there was a period in Israels short history when at least 16 states 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 America – Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela, opening embassies 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 Israels capital: the universal consensus 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 West Jerusalem.
On the other hand, the lack of official recognition is not tantamount to a boycott of Jerusalem as the seat of Israels government. Foreign ambassadors come to the presidents 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 Knessets 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 with a 2014 law 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 UNs point of view, Jerusalem remains corpus separatum, a bubble that doesnt 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 citys permanent status – an international city holy to three major religions and accessible to all of the worlds citizens. Israels 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 citys 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 citys 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.
If the United States does go ahead this week with its reported plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israels capital, vehement opposition can be anticipated among the Palestinians and the Muslim world in general, but also from the world community, which has maintained a consensus on this issue for nearly 70 years.
Nonetheless, the difference between vocal opposition and a more militant response may well depend on the precise phrasing of the U.S. announcement, and the implications it has for the future. When it comes to Jerusalem, the changing of a light bulb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the type of mundane task with the potential to explode into a new religious war.
Though it hardly threatened international hostilities, a 1952 case in Jerusalem District Court provided some evidence of how complex the implications of the citys 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 Shababos family filed a civil case against the driver and the consulate in the district court, the defense claimed that Israels 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.
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