The unique location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel


The issue of the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel is once again in the news. It is, therefore, useful to examine why this one U.S. embassy differs from all other U.S. embassies, in that it has been placed in a city that is not the capital of the country in which it is located.

To find the answer we need to go back to the U.N. Partition Resolution 181 of Nov. 29, 1947. It provided that no later than Aug. 1, 1948, the British U.N. Mandate for Palestine would come to an end. For the ensuing period, Resolution 181 called for a division of the Palestine Mandate into three entities: a newly created Jewish state, a newly created Arab state, and a newly created corpus separatum consisting of the City of Jerusalem and its environs. The latter was to be placed “under a special international regime … administered by the United Nations.”

The Mandate was indeed terminated and the British troops withdrew on May 14, 1948. On that very day, David Ben- Gurion, as president of the Jewish Agency Executive, announced the creation of the State of Israel. But no Arab state was established on any part of the territory of the expiring Mandate of Palestine. Instead, the neighboring Arab states invaded the territory of the former Mandate in an effort to extinguish the newly created State of Israel.

Israel defeated the invaders and a series of armistice agreements were signed in which demarcation lines were established. These demarcation lines divided the area of the former Mandate between Israel and Jordan, except for the Gaza Strip, which was placed under Egyptian control. The armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan also divided the City of Jerusalem, with West Jerusalem being on the Israeli side and East Jerusalem on the Jordanian side of the armistice demarcation line.

The new Israeli-Jordanian demarcation line, which was based on where the frontline troops of the two countries were located when the fighting stopped, differed significantly from the suggested boundary set forth in Resolution 181. It allocated more land to Israel than would have been provided under the U.N. resolution.

It is here that we get to the issue with which we are still dealing today. The United States recognized the armistice demarcation lines as the borders of the State of Israel outside Jerusalem, but did not recognize the line drawn in Jerusalem, because the United Nations was still trying to establish the international regime for the city. This expectation that Jerusalem would be a separate entity and would not be located in Israel was the reason why the United States continued to maintain its embassy in Tel Aviv, where it had opened for business in 1948.

In the years that immediately followed, consistent efforts were made in the United Nations system to create the international regime for Jerusalem provided for in Resolution 181. These efforts were opposed by the Arab member states of the United Nations, as well as by Israel. Given the strong opposition of the Arab states, the effort to create the international regime for Jerusalem did not get off the ground. A Conciliation Commission created by the United Nations, consisting of France, Turkey and the United States, pursued that goal for a number of years, but finally gave up. By 1953 the United Nations had basically ended its efforts to establish Jerusalem as a corpus separatum.

Would that not have been a logical time to move the embassy to West Jerusalem? It would have been if it were not for the fact that John Foster Dulles, the new secretary of state, was greatly concerned about the Soviet Union’s efforts to gain influence in the Arab states. Given the continued opposition of the Arab League to the very existence of the State of Israel, it was deemed advisable to keep the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. Longstanding diplomatic custom was thus superseded by concerns relating to the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

By the time the Cold War had come to an end, the custom of maintaining the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv had become so well established that no thought appeared to be given by the State Department to moving the embassy to West Jerusalem. Adhering to the usual diplomatic policy of locating the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s capital continues to be deemed a step that would offend Arab sensitivities. So U.S. Embassy officials that needed to have direct dealings with Israeli government agencies located in Jerusalem continued to undertake the 84 miles roundtrip to transact that business.

Congress saw no good reason for this exception to the general practice in locating U.S. embassies. In 1995 it adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which called for the U.S. Embassy to Israel to be moved to Jerusalem. But the act did allow the president to waive the requirements of that law if it was determined that it was necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States. The waivers have indeed been forthcoming.

The original reason for the failure to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the proposed corpus separatum, is long gone. There has in recent years been a significant change in the outlook of the neighboring Arab states toward Israel. They quietly do business with the Israeli government located in West Jerusalem. The only strong opposition to a proposed move comes from entities that oppose the existence of the State of Israel. They hold to the belief that the failure of the United States and thus of the international community to maintain embassies in Jerusalem contributes to the delegitimization of Israel.

Should the demands of these entities continue to cause the United States to deviate from our basic, traditional policy regarding the location of U.S. embassies? What needs to be kept in mind is that moving the U.S. Embassy to West Jerusalem, a step that should have been taken in 1953, does not mean that the United States is taking a position on the future status of East Jerusalem.

Richard Schifter chairs the board of directors of the American Jewish International Relations Institute. From 1981 to 2001, he served in the State Department and the staff of the National Security Council, including as deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations.

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