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.

U.S. Aid to Israel: Interpreting the “Strategic Relationship”

“The U.S. aid relationship with Israel is unlike any other in the world,” said Stephen Zunes during a January 26 CPAP presentation. “In sheer volume, the amount is the most generous foreign aid program ever between any two countries,” added Zunes, associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He explored the strategic reasoning behind the aid, asserting that it parallels the “needs of American arms exporters” and the role “Israel could play in advancing U.S. strategic interests in the region.”

Although Israel is an “advanced, industrialized, technologically sophisticated country,” it “receives more U.S. aid per capita annually than the total annual [Gross Domestic Product] per capita of several Arab states.” Approximately a third of the entire U.S. foreign aid budget goes to Israel, “even though Israel comprises just . . . one-thousandth of the world’s total population, and already has one of the world’s higher per capita incomes.”

U.S. government officials argue that this money is necessary for “moral” reasons-some even say that Israel is a “democracy battling for its very survival.” If that were the real reason, however, aid should have been highest during Israel’s early years, and would have declined as Israel grew stronger. Yet “the pattern . . . has been just the opposite.” According to Zunes, “99 percent of all U.S. aid to Israel took place after the June 1967 war, when Israel found itself more powerful than any combination of Arab armies . . .”

The U.S. supports Israel’s dominance so it can serve as “a surrogate for American interests in this vital strategic region.” “Israel has helped defeat radical nationalist movements” and has been a “testing ground for U.S. made weaponry.” Moreover, the intelligence agencies of both countries have “collaborated,” and “Israel has funneled U.S. arms to third countries that the U.S. [could] not send arms to directly, . . . Iike South Africa, like the Contras, Guatemala under the military junta, [and] Iran.” Zunes cited an Israeli analyst who said: “‘It’s like Israel has just become another federal agency when it’s convenient to use and you want something done quietly.”‘ Although the strategic relationship between the United States and the Gulf Arab states in the region has been strengthening in recent years, these states “do not have the political stability, the technological sophistication, [or] the number of higher-trained armed forces personnel” as does Israel.

Matti Peled, former Israeli major general and Knesset member, told Zunes that he and most Israeli generals believe this aid is “little more than an American subsidy to U.S. arms manufacturers,” considering that the majority of military aid to Israel is used to buy weapons from the U.S. Moreover, arms to Israel create more demand for weaponry in Arab states. According to Zunes, “the Israelis announced back in 1991 that they supported the idea of a freeze in Middle East arms transfers, yet it was the United States that rejected it.”

In the fall of 1993-when many had high hopes for peace-78 senators wrote to former President Bill Clinton insisting that aid to Israel remain “at current levels.” Their “only reason” was the “massive procurement of sophisticated arms by Arab states.” The letter neglected to mention that 80 percent of those arms to Arab countries came from the U.S.

“I’m not denying for a moment the power of AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], the pro-Israel lobby,” and other similar groups, Zunes said. Yet the “Aerospace Industry Association which promotes these massive arms shipments . . . is even more influential.” This association has given two times more money to campaigns than all of the pro-Israel groups combined. Its “force on Capitol Hill, in terms of lobbying, surpasses that of even AIPAC.” Zunes asserted that the “general thrust of U.S. policy would be pretty much the same even if AIPAC didn’t exist. We didn’t need a pro-Indonesia lobby to support Indonesia in its savage repression of East Timor all these years.” This is a complex issue, and Zunes said that he did not want to be “conspiratorial,” but he asked the audience to imagine what “Palestinian industriousness, Israeli technology, and Arabian oil money . . . would do to transform the Middle East. . . . [W]hat would that mean to American arms manufacturers? Oil companies? Pentagon planners?”

“An increasing number of Israelis are pointing out” that these funds are not in Israel’s best interest. Quoting Peled, Zunes said, “this aid pushes Israel ‘toward a posture of callous intransigence’ in terms of the peace process.” Moreover, for every dollar the U.S. sends in arms aid, Israel must spend two to three dollars to train people to use the weaponry, to buy parts, and in other ways make use of the aid. Even “main-stream Israeli economists are saying [it] is very harmful to the country’s future.”
The Israeli paper Yediot Aharonot described Israel as “‘the godfather’s messenger’ since [Israel] undertake[s] the ‘dirty work’ of a godfather who ‘always tries to appear to be the owner of some large, respectable business.”‘ Israeli satirist B. Michael refers to U.S. aid this way: “‘My master gives me food to eat and I bite those whom he tells me to bite. It’s called strategic cooperation.” ‘To challenge this strategic relationship, one cannot focus solely on the Israeli lobby but must also examine these “broader forces as well.” “Until we tackle this issue head-on,” it will be “very difficult to win” in other areas relating to Palestine.

“The results” of the short-term thinking behind U.S. policy “are tragic,” not just for the “immediate victims” but “eventually [for] Israel itself” and “American interests in the region.” The U.S. is sending enormous amounts of aid to the Middle East, and yet “we are less secure than ever”-both in terms of U.S. interests abroad and for individual Americans. Zunes referred to a “growing and increasing hostility [of] the average Arab toward the United States.” In the long term, said Zunes, “peace and stability and cooperation with the vast Arab world is far more important for U.S. interests than this alliance with Israel.”

This is not only an issue for those who are working for Palestinian rights, but it also “jeopardizes the entire agenda of those of us concerned about human rights, concerned about arms control, concerned about international law.” Zunes sees significant potential in “building a broad-based movement around it.”

The above text is based on remarks, delivered on. 26 January, 2001 by Stephen Zunes, Associate Professor of Politics and Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at San Francisco University.