A guest post from Prof. Boaz Atzili:
Let’s talk about Jerusalem.
The most import fact to remember is that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel does not mean recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the eastern part of the city, and it does not mean that Jerusalem cannot be the capital of the Palestinian people as well.
1) Is Jerusalem the capital of Israel? Israelis know it is, and West Jerusalem is the seat of the government and the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. In practice and as a matter of fact, this has been the situation for almost 70 years, since 1948.
Legally, the only base to claim that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel is the UN Partition Plan of November 1947. In that UN resolution, Jerusalem was supposed to be an international enclave, neither Israeli nor Palestinian. The Palestinians and Arab states utterly rejected that plan in 1947 and instead chose to fight against what they saw, perhaps justifiably so, as an unfair and biased resolution.
After the War of Independence (for Israelis) or the Nakba (for Palestinians) ended in 1949, nobody seriously considered the Partition Resolution as a viable plan for the future of the land. The majority of UN members recognized Israel in its post-war boundaries, as was the custom of the day, but left the status of Jerusalem open for future negotiations. All the Arab states, who rejected these factual borders, instead insisted that Israel as a whole is illegal, not that it should return to the Partition borders.
In all previous rounds of peace negotiation, no party demanded that West Jerusalem become an international enclave. It is clear to anybody with some sense of appreciation of reality that this is an irreversible fact, like many forceful territorial changes of centuries past. West Jerusalem hence is and should be the capital of Israel.
2) But is also a fact that East Jerusalem’s status is different. It was conquered by Israel in the 1967 war, at the time when international norms about legitimate conquest had already changed dramatically since the late 1940s. By 1967 it was no longer an acceptable practice to change state borders by force. It’s important to note that this was the case not only in international law, but in practice. Hence the occupation of East Jerusalem (like other Arab territories) was not, and is still not, recognized by the international community.
Moreover, despite the massive Israeli building in East Jerusalem and despite the constant rhetoric about “the eternally unified Jerusalem,” the city is not unified. For 50 years, Israel failed to create a city that functions as one whole; the government of the city discriminates against some of its residents based on nationality or religion. And Palestinians feel as strongly attached to East Jerusalem as their capital as Israel feels to theirs. Jerusalem is not a united city, and anybody who lived there can attest to that reality as well.
3) So whatever the US President declares on Wednesday, those twin facts, that West Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and the East Jerusalem will be the Palestinian capital, will not change. Arguing that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel, or that the city is eternally united (presumably under Israeli authority) are both wishful thinking. And in the Middle East, often wishful thinking results in violence.
All of the above does not mean that the US should not be sensitive to the potential violent consequences of a declaration of recognition, or that it should not consider the right timing. Ideally, such a declaration should be done in conjunction with a significant advance in the peace process. But let’s be serious: Jerusalem— united or divided— is and should be the capital of Israel and a Palestinian state.