Recently there has been a controversy when State Department spokespeople refused to say what they thought to be Israel’s capital. To understand this issue we need to understand that there are two different issues involved: that of 1947 and that of 1967.
I’m not going to discuss ancient history, religious factors, and the merits of varying claims here but rather will merely point out some simple facts of practical diplomacy.
The U.S. embassy, like others, is located in Tel Aviv. When diplomats need to meet with Israeli officials they pile into their vans and drive up to Jerusalem. There are other restrictions on just where these diplomats can go and under what conditions, to avoid any implication that they recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem.
Presidents have repeatedly promised to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but have never made the tiniest move toward doing so because that would make Muslims and Arabs angry. In his speeches to AIPAC, President Barack Obama has said — to thunderous applause — that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel and should remain undivided. But of course this was a totally cynical gesture.
One could — as Obama no doubt hoped his audience would do — interpret this as favoring Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. Under that interpretation, Obama was taking a position on the “final status” negotiations. What Obama probably really meant is that after a two-state solution is implemented, there should be no wall or closed border within Jerusalem. (That’s a nice idea, though how it would be implemented is a puzzler.)
There is a genuine diplomatic problem for the United States here, but there is also a reasonable way around it, if any future American president wanted to avail himself of that option.
In 1947, the UN partitioned the British mandate of Palestine into three parts: a Jewish state; an Arab state; and an international zone to control all of Jerusalem. The Jews accepted partition; the Arabs, including the Palestinian Arabs, rejected it. But both agreed that they were against Jerusalem being occupied and run by foreigners.
At the end of the 1948 war, Israel held west Jerusalem and made that city (or portion of the city, if you wish) its capital. Jordan captured the eastern part of the city and annexed it. King Hussein, however, dropped his claim to east Jerusalem and the West Bank — which only Britain and Pakistan had recognized — in 1988.