Thursday, June 11, 2015

Time to be honest about Israel's capital

Time to be honest about Israel's capital


By Frida Ghitis

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Diplomacy sometimes creates moments of delusion, when learned men and women seem to lose touch with reality and speak in confusing sentences. That fact is on clear display when it comes to the issue of Israel's capital.

Let's be clear here: In every reasonable, logical way, the capital of Israel is Jerusalem. That is where the seat of government resides, where the country's parliament stands and legislates and where the President, Prime Minister and Cabinet have their offices and meet. Whatever some governments or politicians might say to the contrary, this fact should be accepted by everyone.

Now, this should not preclude parts of Jerusalem becoming part of another country, say, a future Palestinian state. But when it comes to Jerusalem, as we were reminded Monday by a Supreme Court ruling, nothing is simple.

On Monday, America's top court ruled on the case of 12-year-old Menachem Zivotofsky, who was born in Jerusalem and wanted his passport to state Israel as his country of birth.

Sounds simple, doesn't it?

Sadly, it isn't. In reality, in many situations where the U.S. government talks of Jerusalem, it refuses to say in what country that city is actually located. Indeed, official U.S. policy says the status of Jerusalem is unresolved, subject to the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But while this position is based on the laudable wish to avoid harming the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, there are surely better ways to achieve the same goal without denying reality.

If you want proof of how crazy this gets, I recommend watching a 2012 exchange at the State Department, when a journalist asked the U.S. spokesperson what the capital of Israel is. It happened after an awkward incident, when the itinerary for a U.S. official traveling to the Middle East reportedly listed cities and capitals, including Jerusalem, Israel. The State Department said the announcement was "issued in error," then released a new one, in which the name Jerusalem floated by itself, unmoored to any country.

As a result, a reporter asked the spokesperson where Jerusalem is. The response sounds like an Abbott and Costello routine.

Q: What is the capital of Israel?

U.S. official: Our embassy, as you know, is located in Tel Aviv.

Q: So does that mean you regard Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel?

U.S. official: The issue on Jerusalem has to be settled through negotiations.

It went on and on. Turns out, the United States is unable to name the capital of one of its main allies.

Congress fought the executive for years on this. In 1995 and again in 2002, U.S. law directed the president to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The law still stands, but every six months, the President issues a waiver. On Monday, the Supreme Court sided with the Obama administration, denying the boy's request that his passport acknowledge that he was born in Israel.

The court was right in saying the executive should have wide latitude on foreign policy. That, however, doesn't mean the U.S. stance should remain unchanged. America looks foolish, tying itself in knots with a convoluted, illogical policy.

This is despite the fact that a better, more reasonable approach is available.

Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule until 1917; then British rule until 1948. In 1948, when the British left, the Jews kept the newer, western side of the city, and Jordan captured the east. In 1967, Israel captured the eastern section and reunified Jerusalem.

Fast forward to recent years, and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have focused on whether eastern neighborhoods, taken by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, would be placed under Palestinian sovereignty to become the capital of a new state.

But U.S. policy should reflect the fact that the western side of the city is not in play, because the only people who reject Israeli sovereignty over the west are those who reject Israel's right to exist. Why, then, does Washington not acknowledge that western Jerusalem, at the very least, is Israel's capital?

Of course, many Israelis would not be happy hearing that verbal, diplomatic partition of Jerusalem, a city first made the capital of the Jewish state by King David 3,000 years ago, where Solomon built the ancient Jewish Temple. But Jerusalem, conquered and fought over for thousands of years, is also home to hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who say it is their third holiest city after Mecca and Medina.

And while Arabs would likely not be happy with a change in U.S. policy, the realignment would go a long way in tethering U.S. policy to reality without prejudging the outcome of negotiations.

But the politics of any change to the U.S. position are thorny, as was demonstrated in 2008, when candidate Barack Obama declared "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." Within 24 hours, he started backtracking.

His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, tried to adhere to the official line, but she kept slipping. Visiting Jerusalem she talked about being "Here, in Israel." (Oops.) Even National Security Adviser Susan Rice slipped, tweeting "Great to be back in Israel." (Oops again).

When Obama traveled to Jerusalem in 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointedly told him, "It's a profound honor to host you in our ancient capital." In response, Obama watched his language carefully to avoid acknowledging that Jerusalem is in Israel.

It's hard not to feel a little bit sorry for him, having to visit a country's capital, standing with the Prime Minister, trying to pretend that you're not actually there -- or that the city isn't really where it is. Or whatever it is the U.S. is trying to pretend.


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