This Day in Jewish History

1980: Israel Enacts the Symbolic 'Jerusalem, Capital of Israel' Law

East Jerusalem was never actually annexed, but in 1980, Tehiya's Geula Cohen decided to protect 'the integrity and unity of greater Jerusalem,' to the world's annoyance.

Eyal Toueg

On July 30, 1980, Israel’s Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel.”

Combined with an amendment to the law adopted two decades later, the Jerusalem Law declares, among other things, that the city will remain unified in the borders that the Israeli government determined following the Six-Day War, and that no part of the city may be transferred to a foreign government or body.

What “Basic Law: Jerusalem” did not do, and what Israel had not done in 1967 either -- although it is a common misconception that it did -- is to annex East Jerusalem by law to the state. That remains the case today.

A city with no status

Jerusalem’s status had remained unresolved both before and following the 1948 War of Independence. In its partition decision of November 29, 1947, the United Nations determined that the city would remain a corpus separatum under international supervision – a distinct entity belonging to neither Israel nor the Arab state to be established.

Neither the Arab world nor Israel accepted that plan. By the time the War of Independence had ended, in March 1949, Israel had occupied western Jerusalem and declared the city its capital, and Jordan had occupied and annexed the eastern part of the city. Jerusalem was physically divided. Its residents were not permitted to pass between the sides, and, as Israelis would discover in 1967, the Jordanians laid waste to all but one of the synagogues of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.

No state recognized the jurisdiction of either Jordan or Israel over either part of the city.

Then came the Six-Day War, in June 1967. Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

To this day, 48 years later, it has not applied Israeli law to Judea and Samaria and subjects the area’s Palestinian residents to military law. In the case of Jerusalem, however, though it too was not officially annexed, it was brought under the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem municipality, and Israeli law was implemented.

Israel also greatly enlarged the municipal boundaries of the city, adding some 28 Palestinian villages on East Jerusalem’s periphery to its jurisdiction.

'Permanent residents'

Palestinian residents of Jerusalem were not offered Israeli citizenship, but they were given permanent resident status and issued blue Israeli identity cards, which grants them most of the rights and obligations of citizens, though not a passport or national voting rights. Permanent residency can also be withdrawn if one is absent from the city for a certain period of time.

The Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel of 1980 was first introduced by then-Knesset Member Geula Cohen, from the Tehiya party (she had resigned from Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s Likud party to protest the 1978 Camp David accords).

Cohen’s original version of the private member’s bill stated that "the integrity and unity of greater Jerusalem [Yerushalayim rabati] in its boundaries after the Six-Day War shall not be violated." But by the time the bill became law, the corresponding phrase noted only that “"Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel." (Later, in the 2000 amendment, the Knesset went back to stipulating that the city’s boundaries were those determined in the wake of the 1967 war.)

As scholar Ian Lustick pointed out in a 1997 article in the Middle East Policy Council Journal, the Basic Law did not mention either “sovereignty” or “annexation,” and Prime Minister Begin, in responding to United Nations criticism of the bill from the Knesset podium, said, “You use the word ‘annexation,’ but I am not using it.”

Hence, the purpose of the law seems to have been largely declarative, to make a statement to the world about Israel’s commitment to Jerusalem, rather than to change its legal status.

Judging from the world’s reaction, Israel’s statement was heard loud and clear. A month later, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 478, which declared the Jerusalem Law null and void, and called upon any UN member states with embassies in Jerusalem to close them. At the time, 13 countries had their embassies in the capital: The last of them departed in 2006.

Twitter: davidbeegreen

Geula Cohen (Photo: Pierre Turgeman)