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.