The Republicans Enter the Battle for Jerusalem

Now is a perfect time for Israel to push Jerusalem’s capital-city status before a new Congress – if Netanyahu is actually prepared as prime minister to prioritize the issue.

Ariel Schalit

It’s no small thing that the latest engagement in the Battle of Jerusalem is occurring on the eve of the arrival of a new Congress in Washington, in which the Senate was well as the House will be lead by the Republicans. One hesitates to suggest, given the hash that has been made of America’s “reset” with Russia, that the Jerusalem question is due for a “reset.” On the other hand, the current crisis invites a more active line.

Particularly because, heretofore, there has been, at least as I perceive it, a lack of clarity about what Israel really wants in respect of its capital. I have covered the topic for at least a generation, albeit almost always from America. The moment I keep thinking about was in 1995, when Congress was readying what became the Jerusalem Embassy Act.

Sentiment for moving America’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem had been building for several years. In the early 1990s, one of America’s greatest senators, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, came by the Forward, which I was then editing. He spoke at great length of his frustration with the State Department and its refusal to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. He’d been agitating on it since the 1980s.

Moynihan was a highly nuanced politician and a public intellectual. He warned that Menachem Begin liked to say that the question of Jerusalem couldn’t be decided in the U.S. Congress. It had to be, and could only be, resolved by Israel. But neither would Moynihan let go of the issue. He felt there were things that Congress could do to lay in support.

As the Jerusalem Embassy Act was nearing passage, Senator Charles Schumer, another New Yorker, vowed that moving the embassy would be legislated — and completed — promptly. The measure passed in 1995. It declared it to be the policy of the United States that an undivided Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. It required our embassy be moved there within four years

At the last minute, however, the Democrats had slipped into the measure a provision for a waiver that the president could use to delay the move if he felt it endangered national security. Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush,  and Obama have invoked the waiver ever since, and the embassy is still at Tel Aviv. When I asked one of the major players in that fight how the Senate could allow this to happen, the response was that Israel was letting it be known it didn’t want to rock the boat.

Some years later, when I asked Ariel Sharon about the embassy, he denied there was any reluctance in the government to have the embassy moved. But neither did Israel make Jerusalem a priority in Washington. Sharon himself was prepared to take his famous walk on the Temple Mount. But he was either unprepared — or simply failed to — to take the matter to Capitol Hill.

The one politician who did that, Prime Minister Netanyahu, was greeted with an astounding ovation. That was in 1996, when he gave the first of his two addresses to a Joint Meeting of Congress. Netanyahu, speaking in a House in which leadership had just been handed to the Republicans, talked of growing up in a divided Jerusalem, of its liberation and then vowed, “there will never be such a re-division of Jerusalem — never.” Congressmen and senators from both sides of the aisle, visitors and members of the Supreme Court, the whole room leapt to its feet in sustained applause.

Would this have happened had Netanyahu instead said “and I am impelled to say that no Jew will be permitted to pray while on the Temple Mount, not even to move his or her lips in silent prayer”? It’s not my purpose here to suggest how Israel’s leaders ought to do their jobs. I couldn’t get elected shammas [warden] in an empty shul. It is my purpose to observe that this is a moment to press rightful claims before a new Congress that will be seated in January and remain seated until the next presidential election.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.