“A Republican administration will ensure that the U.S. Embassy is moved to Jerusalem by May 1999.”
“Immediately upon taking office, the next Republican president will begin the process of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel's capital, Jerusalem.”
“Republicans continue to support moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel's capital, Jerusalem.”
“We support Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.”
“My understanding is the policy of our nation has been a desire to move our embassy ultimately to the capital. That is something which I would agree with. But I would only want to do so and to select the timing in accordance with the government of Israel.”
— Mitt Romney, interview with CNN, July 29, 2012
Like Lucy and the football, the pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is a campaign promise that is never fulfilled. But once again it is in the news, particularly after White House spokesman Jay Carney last week could not answer whether Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, so let’s take a closer look at this issue.
The Israeli government is located in Jerusalem, including the prime minister’s office and parliament, and yet all but two countries have chosen to locate their embassies outside of Jerusalem, most commonly in Tel Aviv. The United Nations also does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The reason is simple: the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians remains unresolved, at least in the eyes of international law. The original U.N. partition in 1947 envisioned Jerusalem as an international city, to be administered by the United Nations. Palestinians would like to locate the capital of a future state in East Jerusalem. So there are competing claims, and diplomatically, the easiest thing to do is to avoid taking a stand.
Moreover, international recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a potential bargaining chip in any future peace agreement. So diplomats are loathe to give up something for free.
But in the meantime, Jerusalem is clearly Israel’s capital. Acknowledging that reality — as Romney did over the weekend while visiting Israel — does not actually change the diplomatic picture.
Four years ago, in a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, then Sen. Barack Obama declared, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” Then, a day later, he semi-backtracked over the “undivided” part after complaints from Palestinians, saying “it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations.”
Then, while on his own trip to Israel in the summer of 2008, he told ABC News: “The fact is that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. And so I was simply saying a fact.”
Interestingly, however, Obama demurred when ABC’s Charlie Gibson asked him if he would move the embassy. “Charlie, you know I think we're going to work through this process before we make these kinds of decisions,” he replied.
In that respect, Obama was unusual. As shown above, the GOP platform for four straight elections has pledged to move the embassy.
Bill Clinton, as a candidate in 1992, also had indicated support for “the principle of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.” Note that he did not actually promise he would do so — and then he repeatedly signed a waiver putting off the move after Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 (Public Law 104-45). The act stated in part:
“STATEMENT OF THE POLICY OF THE UNITED STATES.—
(1) Jerusalem should remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected;
(2) Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel; and
(3) the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.”
(Note: this law followed a 1990 House resolution that also declared “Jerusalem is and should remain the capital of the State of Israel.”)
Similarly, then-candidate George W. Bush slammed the Clinton administration for failing to act on moving the embassy and declared in 2000, in a speech before AIPAC: “Something will happen when I'm president: as soon as I take office I will begin the process of moving the U.S. ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital.”
Six months after taking office, however, Bush signed the same waiver as Clinton did — and kept doing it for the next eight years.
In 2002, Congress also passed the legislation that allowed Americans born in Jerusalem the right to list “Israel” as their birthplace — but both Bush and Obama refused to enforce it.
Clearly, the diplomats keep winning the internal battle after the election-year rhetoric is forgotten. Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser for Bush, wrote on his Council on Foreign Relations blog this weekend:
“As someone who has dealt with this issue while serving in the U.S. government, I have always found it odd that administration after administration calls this a “final status issue.” At worst for Israel, a return to the 1949 armistice lines would leave Israel in full control of west Jerusalem, where its government institutions are located: the Knesset, courts, ministries, and prime minister’s office. Whatever the disposition or division of the Old City, the Palestinian claim does not involve west Jerusalem. It is therefore bizarre that we refuse to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, even if we feel obliged to say that the final borders of the city remain to be negotiated or that parts of the city are also claimed by Palestinians for the capital of an eventual Palestinian state.”
Martin Indyk, ambassador to Israel under Clinton and now vice president at the Brookings Institution, put it this way:
“Jerusalem is a highly emotional issue for Israelis and their supporters in the United States, just as it is for Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab and Muslim worlds. So candidates promise to move the embassy to appeal to the Jewish and Christian fundamentalist voters but presidents always decide that it’s the better part of valor to avoid implementing this particular promise. I think the pro-Israel constituency has become totally cynical about this by now and that it won’t get Romney one more vote. … Nobody could possibly be fooled by this anymore.”
The Pinocchio Test
Declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel is easy for any politician. Pledging to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is almost as easy. The hard part comes when the successful candidate moves into the Oval Office and learns the diplomatic consequences of a unilateral act, without getting anything from Israel in return.
Romney, somewhat oddly, said he would make the move according to Israel’s timetable, when in fact successive Israeli governments have begged the United States to move its embassy. He also left himself a few caveats, such as referring to “ultimately” moving the embassy.
A more credible statement would be outlining the specific steps he would take as president, such as implementing the laws on the embassy and passports that Congress had passed, and giving a precise timetable for action.
We can’t really award Pinocchios for Romney’s comments, except to note that given past history, this is a campaign promise waiting to be broken.
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