The Evolution of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem: International Law versus the Rule of Force

“Recent moves by the Clinton and the current Bush administrations regarding Jerusalem have surprised even the most cynical observers of U.S. foreign policy for their disregard of … international legal conventions and their departure from the stated positions of their previous administrations,” said Stephen Zunes at a 26 July 2001 Center lecture. Zunes, associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco, explained that the U.S. has become increasingly accepting of Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem, which is in violation of international law.

Zunes explained that the United Nations General Assembly partition resolution of 1947 called for Jerusalem to be internationalized. During the 1948 war, Israel took control of the western part of the city and Jordan the eastern. The city remained divided until the 1967 war, at which point Israel occupied the eastern Arab sector of Jerusalem as well as the rest of the West Bank. In the years after 1967, “Israel began to administer a greatly expanded eastern Jerusalem under Israeli law,” including a large swath of rural areas and villages “many miles beyond … the traditional municipal boundaries” of Jerusalem. In response to Israel’s annexation, “the U.S. supported UN Security Council Resolution 267 which condemned Israel’s conquest of the city as illegal and censored ‘in strongest terms all measures taken to change the status of the city of Jerusalem.’ ”

The first six U.S. administrations since the 1967 war viewed East Jerusalem as occupied and subject to UN resolutions 242 and 338. These resolutions “reiterate the long-standing principle of international law regarding the illegality of expansion of any nation’s territory through military force.” Even under the Nixon administration—during which time the U.S. “first used its veto to protect Israeli violations of international law”—the U.S. clearly opposed Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and its colonization of the area. This policy was first challenged during the 1980 presidential campaign, during which contender Ronald Reagan said: “‘an undivided city of Jerusalem means sovereignty for Israel over that city.’ ” Nonetheless, when in office, the Reagan administration’s stance toward Jerusalem “was mostly in line with the policy of its predecessors.”

According to Zunes, the United States “joined virtually the entire international community in declaring Israel’s de facto annexation ‘null and void.’ ” This was the language used against Iraq when it invaded Kuwait in 1990. In fact, former President George Bush, Sr.’s argument for entering Gulf War was because “such land grabs must be reversed” and UN Security Council resolutions upheld.

Despite various contradictions in policy, such as U.S. military aid to Israel, which is used to uphold the occupation, the United States still remained “faithful, at least in rhetoric, to important principles of international law. That is until Bill Clinton came to power,” at which point there was a “major shift.” In a count of settlements, for example, the Clinton administration did not count those in East Jerusalem. Additionally, “in 1995, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the construction of illegal Israeli settlements within Arab East Jerusalem.” This was the first administration “not to oppose building settlements in greater Jerusalem,” Zunes asserted. Although previous administrations had raised objections to various aspects of some UN resolutions, “no administration prior to Clinton’s, however, questioned the fact that East Jerusalem was occupied territory, that Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem were anything but illegal, or that the Israeli governance of East Jerusalem was subject to [the] provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” Zunes continued that “combined with the fact that only the United States has the influence to force Israel to end its occupation of Jerusalem, the Clinton administration and now the current Bush administration’s shift in policy … threatens the future peace and stability of the entire region.”

“The United States is effectively endorsing a country’s act of unilateral territorial expansionism. Challenging the fact that Jerusalem is currently under military occupation discourages the Israelis from making the necessary comprises for peace” and may serve to encourage other countries to seize land by force. No other country except the U.S. and Israel supports a united Jerusalem largely under Israeli control as its capital. “International organizations and leaders of major religious bodies throughout the world have repeatedly stressed the importance of not allowing Israel’s unilateral takeover to remain unchallenged.” Even in the U.S., continued Zunes, “public opinion polls show a majority of Americans … believe that Jerusalem should be a shared city, a shared capital.”

Current U.S. policy toward Jerusalem is a “direct challenge to the authority of the United Nations and some of the most basic tenets of international law.” Still, Zunes believes that “the situation is not hopeless, merely bleak. There are still possibilities for major shifts, but these shifts are not going to come as long as the United States in its policies … keeps goading on the annexationists who want to make the occupation permanent.”

Zunes argued that “it is a choice between those who wish to uphold international law and the right of self-determination versus those willing to accept the results of military might and the right of conquest. The United States government is on the wrong side. Our job is to set them right.” Granted, there are powerful domestic forces supporting Israel, but on some very key aspects of this conflict, such as Jerusalem, “we already have the support of the American people behind us.” It is just a matter of mobilizing them to act. Many popular movements regarding Central America, South Africa, East Timor, and elsewhere “grew from real obscure minority [pressure] to where Congress finally felt the heat.”

The above text is based on remarks delivered on 26 July 2001 by Stephen Zunes, Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at San Francisco University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund. This “For the Record” was written by Publications Manager Wendy Lehman; it may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Palestine Center. Zunes may be reached at

This information first appeared in For the Record No. 80, 2 August 2001.

Western Sahara


Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes with a long history of resistance to outside domination, the area known as Spanish Sahara was occupied by Spain during much of the twentieth century and held for more than a decade after most African countries achieved their independence. The nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973, and Madrid eventually promised to grant independence. Irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania were brought before the International Court of Justice, which ruled in 1975 that the right of self-determination was paramount. A UN Commission visited the territory that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence. Despite this and its earlier pledge to the Polisario, Spain partitioned the territory between Morocco and Mauritania in November 1975. Most of the population fled into refugee camps administered by the Polisario in neighboring western Algeria. The Polisario proclaimed independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and–with Algerian-supplied weaponry–fought the occupying armies. By 1982, the Polisario had liberated most of the territory, but large-scale French and American military aid reversed the war in Morocco’s favor, resulting in Moroccan control of virtually the entire country, including the establishment of an 800-mile “wall” to exclude the Polisario from their own country. Meanwhile, Rabat was encouraging thousands of Moroccan settlers to emigrate to Western Sahara. A military stalemate continued until 1991, when a cease-fire was declared and plans were established for a UN-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Morocco, however, has prevented the referendum from proceeding by insisting upon stacking the voter rolls with Moroccan citizens that it claims have tribal links to the Western Sahara.

Main Actors

Kingdom of Morocco–occupies Western Sahara

Polisario Front–nationalist movement of Western Sahara

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic–government-in-exile of Western Sahara led by the Polisario Front, recognized by more than 70 countries

Islamic Republic of Mauritania–granted administration of southern third of Western Sahara in 1975; renounced claim in 1978 after defeat by the Polisario

Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria–principal backer of the Polisario and home to most of the Sahrawi refugee population

Republic of France–major military and diplomatic supporter of Morocco

United States–major military and diplomatic supporter of Morocco

Kingdom of Spain–colonial ruler of Western Sahara

Proposed Solutions and Evaluation of Prospects

Despite initial demands by the UN Security Council in 1975 for Morocco to withdraw its occupation forces unconditionally and respect the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination, the UN agreed in 1991 to organize and oversee a referendum whereby voters in the territory could choose between independence or incorporation into Morocco. The UN established a special force, known as MINURSO, to supervise the cease-fire, help with the repatriation of refugees, and make preparations for the plebiscite. Both parties agreed to base the voter rolls on residents tabulated in a 1974 Spanish census and their descendants. However, Morocco has insisted on also including large numbers of Moroccans who could trace their ancestry to Sahrawi tribes, effectively stacking the electorate in favor of incorporation. Meanwhile, Moroccan troops remain in Western Sahara, and any pro-independence political activity is severely repressed. The refugees remain in their Polisario-managed camps in Algeria.

Both France and the United States have blocked the UN from imposing sanctions or putting pressure on the Moroccans to compromise. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, through his special envoy, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, has been engaged in seeking a resolution. Despite Polisario threats to return to war, Algeria–which has undergone serious internal conflict over the past decade–is unlikely to provide military assistance necessary to challenge Moroccan control.

Role of U.S.

The United States, along with France, has been the principal military backer of Morocco in its 25-year occupation of Western Sahara. U.S. counterinsurgency advisers and equipment played a key role in reversing the war in Morocco’s favor in the 1980s. Morocco has long been considered a strategic ally of the West, initially during the cold war as an anticommunist force and more recently as an asset against Islamic militancy. So far, the U.S. has rejected the increasingly moderate and pro-Western tone of the Polisario, though a coalition of liberal and conservative members of Congress has begun to pressure the administration to support Sahrawi self-determination. Successive U.S. administrations have feared that should Morocco lose a fair referendum–a likely scenario–it could mean the downfall of Morocco’s pro-Western monarchy, which has staked its political future on incorporating what it refers to as “the southern provinces.” As a result, although Washington gives lip service to Baker’s mission and related UN efforts and provides a few dozen military and civilian personnel to MINURSO, the U.S. is unlikely to encourage a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Africa’s longest-running and final anticolonial struggle.