The Jerusalem Hijack

The most fascinating question in this book on U.S. legislation supporting the transfer of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, touches upon the complex issue of that city's custodianship

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"The Jerusalem Capital Ambush: The Political Maneuvers to Relocate the American Embassy in Israel" [in Hebrew] by Akiva Eldar and Nimrod Goren, The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 187 pages, NIS 50

"The Jerusalem Capital Ambush" is the title Akiva Eldar and Nimrod Goren have chosen for this book, which describes what is in truth a Jerusalem "hijack": the move in October, 1995, in which Republican leaders got together with some of the Israeli right and the Jewish right in the United States, in order to get through both houses of the U.S. Congress a bill directing the administration of president Bill Clinton to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The chapter that deals with the affair is the core of this book, which documents the attempt over many years to strengthen and establish the status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by moving the U.S. Embassy there. This attempt began from a disadvantageous starting point, as during the first years of the State of Israel, not only did the U.S. not think of locating its embassy in Jerusalem, it also took vigorous action to thwart Israel's attempts to persuade other countries to do so.

The annexation of East Jerusalem de facto and de jure after the Six-Day War added another dimension to a complex issue, for even if the U.S. came to terms with Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it did not accept the unification of the city. Various administrations saw East Jerusalem as part of the territory that would ultimately be destined to be included in a solution based on "land for peace."

Party split

The affair concerning the 1995 legislation is indeed a dramatic and intriguing subject for several reasons. It was based on the exploitation of the tension between Congress, which since 1994 had been under Republican control, and the Democratic administration, as well as the extraordinary standing of Israel and the Jewish community in Washington and the American political campaigns in the mid-1990s. Friendly and trusting relations developed between president Clinton and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the two administrations cooperated in conducting the Israeli-Arab peace process, which at the time was at its zenith. At the same time, the leader of the Republican majority in Congress, Newt Gingrich, had become a dominant figure in Washington (until Clinton managed to regain his position in 1996). The Republican Party invested an open effort in winning a considerable slice of the Jewish vote (beyond the 18 percent it won in 1992) and the aspiring presidential candidate, Bob Dole, was also courting Jewish backers and voters.

Gingrich and the conservative Republicans in Congress were among the supporters of Israel for both ideological and political reasons, but in (conscious) contrast to the Clinton-Rabin axis, Gingrich was linked to the Jewish and Israeli right. However, the importance of the American party political split on this issue should not be exaggerated, as the Democratic senator from New York, Patrick Daniel Moynihan, played a key role in initiating the 1995 legislation, as he had done a decade earlier without success.

The seeds of the 1995 initiative remain obscure. It is easy to guess why politicians like Dole and Moynihan jumped on the bandwagon of the initiative the moment it began to roll, but it is also clear that they were not the ones who initiated it. It is reasonable to assume, as Eldar and Goren suggest, that elements of the Israeli and Jewish right saw a golden opportunity to strengthen, so they thought, Israel's hold on Jerusalem, to earn political dividends and cause political damage to the Clinton administration, Rabin and the Oslo process, which they vehemently opposed.

They did indeed succeed in embarrassing Yitzhak Rabin and his government. As Israel's representative in Washington during that period, I can testify first hand as to just how embarrassing it was to have to react on behalf of the government of Israel to that initiative in its early stages. It was clear that politically, we neither wanted nor were able to oppose the initiative to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At the same time, it was also clear to us that even if the legislative initiative proved successful, every administration would find a way not to implement it. The system of checks and balances between the administration and Congress is such that the administration can use what is known as executive privilege and not implement an act of legislation in the area of foreign policy.

The expected outcome, in our opinion, was intended to be legislation that would not be implemented until such time as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be resolved and the U.S. would be able to compensate Israel for the concessions it would have to make with a series of gestures, among them the relocation of its embassy to Jerusalem. What is more important and what does more good or harm: the ability to get a law like this passed in Congress, or the administration's manifest ability to neutralize this law?

Rewarding Barak

In the following chapters of the book, the authors do indeed describe how the Clinton administration avoided relocating the embassy to Jerusalem and how it rebuffed congressional and other political pressures on this issue. For only a brief moment, after the failure of the Camp David summit, did Clinton hint at his willingness to carry out the measure. Apparently, he tried to reward and help prime minister Ehud Barak, whose proposed concessions in the matter of Jerusalem exacted a political price from him without any recompense. More interesting is the fact that when a Republican president entered the White House in January 2001, like his Democratic predecessor, he refrained from implementing the law that had been passed by his party colleagues.

This book by Akiva Eldar and Nimrod Goren is based on thorough research and lucidly sets forth the twists and turns of an important episode in Israeli foreign policy and the history of Israel's relations with the U.S. The authors' main achievement, however, derives from their ability to go beyond the mere narration of events and illuminate a series of theoretical issues such as the complex relation between internal politics and the conduct of foreign policy, the gap between the ideological- declarative level of a national policy (one Jerusalem, liberated, united, ours, which will never be divided) and its pragmatic level (see the treatment of the Jerusalem issue at the Camp David summit), and the complex question of Israel's relations with the Jewish community in the U.S. and the absence of orderly and effective patterns for conducting these relations. How does the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the major effective tool that American Jewry has to promote U.S.-Israel relations, decide its goals? What is the status and role of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in this context? Do the government of Israel and the Jewish leadership want to discipline "rebellious" organizations and do they have the ability to do so?

In this context, the most fascinating question that is brought up by "Jerusalem Ambush" touches upon the debate, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, about the custodianship of Jerusalem. Is it the responsibility of the state of Israel and hence its elected government? Or is Jerusalem perhaps the property of the entire Jewish people, and hence it is the right of every Jew who is concerned about the welfare of Jerusalem to question the policy of the government of Israel in this matter and even undermine it?

At the Camp David summit in July 2000 and in its wake, prime minister Ehud Barak took upon himself the authority to decide. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's refusal spared the State of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora the bitter debate that would have broken out had Arafat responded in the affirmative. But the debate has not gone away; it has only been postponed.

The president of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, was Israel's ambassador to the United States from 1993 to 1996.



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