The Corner

What Is the Capital of Israel?

Fifth-grade geography question: What is the capital of Israel? If you answered “Jerusalem,” you get an A in Israel, but an F in London, or, sadly, in Washington.

The Guardian newspaper, the voice of England’s anti-Israel leftist elites, sinned on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day by printing a photo of Israelis observing a moment of silence — with a caption saying this was happening in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. It then printed a correction of this egregious crime, apologizing for the mistake and noting that Tel Aviv is Israel’s capital, which it manifestly is not: The executive, legislative, and judicial branches are all in Jerusalem.

But before we get too hot about this ridiculous position we should recall that it is ours too. The U.S. embassy is in Tel Aviv, and we resolutely refuse to call Jerusalem Israel’s capital. Last month, a spokesman for the State Department would not answer a point-blank, simple query as to whether we agreed that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It’s a final-status issue, she said, and cannot be prejudged. That’s the U.S. position, and has been for decades.

That puts us in the company of the Guardian, which alone should be cause for a re-thinking. Two important things about Jerusalem are in doubt, and await final-status negotiations (and that is going to be a long wait). The first is the exact size of the city, for its municipal borders were expanded after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. Many Israelis, not least Jerusalem’s current mayor, believe the borders were expanded too far — for example, to include the Shuafat refugee camp, three miles north of the Old City, and its population of 35,000. Second, Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. What is meant by “East Jerusalem” will be part of the same final-status negotiations, but the Palestinians make no claim to the portions of the city that were part of Israel even before the 1967 war. Those portions include the Knesset, prime minister’s office, president’s residence, Supreme Court, and all other national political entities.

That raises a question and suggests an answer. Why can’t the United States say, when asked if Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, something like this? “Sure, the exact borders of the city will have to be resolved in negotiations; Palestinian and Israeli claims conflict to some degree; and Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their eventual capital. But no one doubts that at least portions of the city will always be Israel’s capital. We do not wish to prejudge or interfere with those future negotiations, but your question is an easy one; the capital of Israel is Jerusalem.” Why? Because we refuse to say that Israel is the only country whose right to choose its own capital we refuse to recognize, and whose choice we reject. So we stand with the Guardian on this, instead of with the Israelis. We are on the wrong side.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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