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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem: A Long Overdue Step

American and Israeli flags line the streets leading up to the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which officially moved there from Tel Aviv on May 14. (Photo: Israel in the USA/Facebook)

On May 14, the United States officially moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following the presidential recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcement of the move in December. This action—which coincided with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence—was a long-overdue step that finally implements U.S. law.

For more than two decades, lawmakers from across the political spectrum have supported recognition of the reality that Jerusalem, the historic capital of the Jewish people, is the capital of the modern State of Israel. In addition, this step leaves the door open for negotiations to establish two states for two peoples; Israelis and Palestinians have agreed in the Oslo Accords that Jerusalem is a final status issue, and this move does not preclude future negotiations over Jerusalem’s status and boundaries.                                                

Jerusalem is the historic capital of the Jewish people.   


Since King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel some 3,000 years ago, the city has served as the spiritual capital of the Jewish people. Jerusalem is Judaism’s holiest city, as well as the third holiest city in Islam and the birthplace of Christianity. Judaism's most holy site, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, serves as the central focus of Jewish veneration and prayer; the Western Wall (Kotel) is its last remaining vestige.

In 1948, following Israel’s declaration of independence, five Arab countries and their supporters invaded Israel to destroy the reborn state. While Israel emerged from the war victorious, the Jordanian Army did manage to hold Jerusalem’s Old City—expelling all Jews, destroying all synagogues, and forbidding Jews from accessing their holy sites for the first time in over a millennium. Jordan’s annexation of East Jerusalem—including the Old City—was not generally recognized by the international community.

In 1967, the Israel Defense Forces recaptured Jerusalem and reunited the city. For the first time in 19 years, people of all religions could freely and safely practice their faith.

Jerusalem is the capital of the reborn State of Israel.

In 1949, following the Jewish state’s creation, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) proclaimed Jerusalem as Israel’s permanent capital—a position reiterated by every Israeli government since. As a sovereign nation, Israel has the right to declare any city within its borders as its capital.

The government of Israel—including its legislative, judicial and executive branches—has been located in western Jerusalem since 1950. Although the U.S. embassy has long resided in Tel Aviv, previous administrations from both sides of the aisle have regularly conducted official business with Israel in Jerusalem.

When Jordan controlled Jerusalem’s Old City from 1948 to 1967, Israeli Christians, Arabs, and Jews of all nationalities were denied access to the city’s sacred sites. Following Israel’s victory in the defensive 1967 Six-Day War, Jerusalem was reunified and people of all religions were guaranteed access to their holy places. Israel has consistently honored the Muslim connection to Jerusalem; in a gesture of peace, Israel allowed Muslim religious authorities to retain administrative control over the Temple Mount—recognizing the religious significance of the site to Muslims.

In 1980, the Knesset legislated the “Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel,” which declares  that "Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel" and the seat of its main governing bodies.

Congress has long recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

For decades, Congress has called for the U.S. government to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate our embassy there.

In 1990, the House of Representatives and Senate overwhelmingly adopted bipartisan resolutions (H.Con.Res. 290 and S.Con.Res. 106) that acknowledged Jerusalem “is and should remain the capital of the State of Israel.”

In 1995, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act that required the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. AIPAC strongly lobbied for passage, and the act was overwhelmingly supported by the Senate (93–5) and House (374–37). The law permits the president to temporarily waive this action if deemed necessary for U.S. national security, and since then, presidential administrations from both sides of the aisle have used waivers to delay moving the embassy.

In 2002, Congress overwhelmingly adopted the FY 2003 Foreign Relations Authorization Act that requires all government-funded documents that list countries and their capital cities to identify Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Lastly, Congress has repeatedly reaffirmed its support for the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Most recently, the Senate in June 2017 overwhelmingly adopted S.Res. 176 which “reaffirms the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995…and calls upon the President and all United States officials to abide by its provisions.”

Moving the U.S. embassy does not push back prospects for peace.

In his December 2017 announcement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the president reasserted his commitment to a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. These actions in no way preclude future negotiations over the city’s final status, boundaries or the goal of a two-state solution.

Moreover, the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem will be located in the portion of Jerusalem that has been in Israeli hands since 1948. All reasonable parties accept that this area will be part of Israel in any future peace agreement.

Through its actions, the United States simply recognizes what has long been obvious, and sends a clear message to the Palestinians that U.S. policy will not be dictated by the Palestinians’ refusal to resume direct talks with the Jewish state.

In contrast, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ caustic rhetoric and refusal to return to the negotiating table truly sets back the cause of peace. Regardless of where the U.S. embassy in Israel is located, Abbas should immediately return to direct, bilateral negotiations with Israel, which is the most reliable path to achieve a durable peace agreement.

The U.S. embassy move sets an example for the world.

Since the U.S. announcement in December, a number of other countries have indicated their interest in moving their own embassies to Jerusalem. On May 16, two days after the United States, Guatemala officially opened its embassy in Jerusalem, and Paraguay is expected to do so by the end of May. Israeli officials have also reportedly been in contact with around 10 additional countries, including Honduras, Romania and the Czech Republic.

The United States should laud these efforts, and continue working to promote international recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the relocation of foreign embassies there. These actions send a strong message: America (and other nations) will not allow the Palestinians to hold U.S. policy hostage to their unwillingness to resume negotiations with Israel. Instead, the door remains open for bilateral negotiations to establish two states for two peoples; Israelis and Palestinians have agreed in the Oslo Accords that Jerusalem is a final status issue, and such moves by foreign governments do not preclude future negotiations between the two parties over Jerusalem’s status and boundaries.

Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report