Jerusalem: Endorsing the Right of Conquest

In a flagrant attack on the longstanding international legal principle that it is illegitimate for any country to expand its territory by military means, the U.S. House of Representatives, by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, passed House Concurrent Resolution 152 congratulating Israel for its forcible “reunification of Jerusalem” and its victory in the June 1967 war.

The resolution, passed by a voice vote on June 5 — the 40th anniversary of the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem and other Arab territories — states that U.S. policy should recognize that Jerusalem is “the undivided capital of Israel.” There is no mention that Jerusalem — which has the largest Palestinian population of any city and which for centuries served as the commercial, cultural, education and religious center for Palestinian life — should also be recognized as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The resolution was sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA), widely recognized as the Democratic Party’s chief foreign policy spokesman, and co-sponsored by such Democratic Party foreign policy leaders as Howard Berman (D-CA), Eliot Engel (D- NY), Robert Wexler (D-FL), Joseph Crowley (D-NY), and Middle East subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman (D-NY).

Israel has formally annexed East Jerusalem and surrounding lands, unlike the rest of the West Bank, which is either under the control of Israeli military administration or the Palestine Authority. No government outside Israel recognizes this illegal annexation or supports the idea of a Jerusalem united under exclusive Israeli sovereignty. 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. UN Security Council resolutions 252, 267, 271, 298, 476 and 478 — passed without U.S. objections during both Democratic and Republican administrations — specifically call on Israel to rescind its annexation and other efforts to alter the city’s legal status. Given that Article 5 of resolution 478 specifically calls on all UN member states not to recognize Israel’s annexation efforts, the Democratic-controlled Congress is effectively calling on the Bush administration to put the United States in direct violation of the UN Security Council.

Who Controls Jerusalem?

Jerusalem has been conquered and re-conquered more than 37 times in its 3000-year old history. Yet, with the establishment over the past century of clear international legal principles forbidding such military conquests and of international organizations with enforcement mechanisms, there has been a persistent hope that the fate of Jerusalem could — along with other territories seized by the Israeli armed forces — be resolved peacefully and with deference to international law. UN Security Council resolution 242, long seen as the basis for Arab-Israeli peace, emphasizes the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Congress appears to think differently, however.

The bipartisan decision to pass a resolution celebrating Israel’s military conquest at a time when there is a growing consensus among Palestinians, Israelis, and the international community that a shared Jerusalem is imperative for a durable peace appears to have been designed to undermine the peace process. As M.J. Rosenberg, director of the Israel Policy Forum’s Washington Policy Center, observed, “Congress has a role to play in the Middle East…but that leadership is not expressed by resolutions celebrating a war but by using its authority to promote security for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Virtually no one would like to see Jerusalem return to its 1948-67 status, when it was divided by sentry posts, barbed wire, and snipers, with neither Israelis nor Palestinians able to cross to the other side. However, there are a number of other options, including making Jerusalem an international city as originally called for by the UN in 1947, creating a joint Israeli-Palestinian administration, or repartitioning the city but with full access by residents and visitors to both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

For example, the Geneva Initiative — signed by such prominent Israeli officials as former Justice member and Oslo Accord architect Yossi Beilin, former Labor Party Leader Avram Mitzna and former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg (along with equally-prominent Palestinian leaders) — call for Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods and holy sites to be under Israeli control and the Palestinian neighborhoods and Muslim and Christian holy sites to be under Palestinian control, a position that public opinion polls indicate a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis supports.

An overwhelming bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, however, in a clear rebuke of such initiatives, insists that the entire city be under exclusive Israeli control.

This led to protests by more moderate voices in the House. As Rep. David Price (D-NC) put it in the floor debate prior to the vote, since “the idea of an undivided Jerusalem under sole Israeli sovereignty has not been part of any serious peace proposal . . . in the last several years,” the resolution thereby “undermines U.S. efforts to secure the trust of all sides in the search for peace.” Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) observed how “it has long been understood that a permanent agreement about the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem will be left to final-status negotiations. . . . I think we tread on dangerous territory when Congress adopts positions that run counter to issues that have yet to be negotiated.” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) was among those noting the irony of the House passing what many would label a pro-Israel resolution that “would place Congress out of step with large parts of the Israeli political spectrum.”

The United States, like all other nations with diplomatic representation in Israel, has its embassy in Tel Aviv pending resolution of the status of Jerusalem. However, the Lantos resolution calls on President Bush to unilaterally move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem prior to a peace settlement, despite the president’s recognition, like that of his predecessors, that doing so would sabotage U.S. diplomatic efforts and needlessly evoke enormous hostility throughout the Islamic world. In the eyes of the Democratic-controlled Congress, there is nothing to negotiate: Israel is the undivided capital of Israel by right of conquest.

Israel’s Occupation

Whatever the position of the U.S. Congress might be, however, the fact remains that the residents of East Jerusalem never voluntarily ceded sovereignty to Israel through a referendum or other methods; their part of the city was seized by military force. By any definition, this constitutes a military occupation.

To this day, Israeli occupation forces patrol the streets and engage in ongoing human rights abuses against residents who oppose Israeli rule continue. The Israeli government has confiscated or destroyed homes and other property belonging to longstanding Muslim and Christian residents of the city. Several UN bodies, along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights organizations have frequently cited Israel for its ongoing violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas. Despite this, the House resolution commends Israel for having “respected the rights of all religious groups” during its 40-year occupation.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, has refused to raise any objections to Israeli occupation forces banning access by most Palestinians to the schools, hospitals, businesses, and cultural venues of Palestine’s largest city. This ban has caused enormous suffering to the population. And just as the Jordanians refused to allow Israeli Jews to visit their holy sites in the Old City when the Hashemite Kingdom controlled East Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, Israel now severely restricts access by Palestinian Muslims and Christians from the Gaza Strip or the rest of the West Bank from visiting their holy sites in the Old City.

Despite the resolution’s claims to the contrary, those of us who have actually been to Jerusalem in recent years recognize that it is hardly a unified city. One hardly ever sees any Israelis other than soldiers and journalists in Palestinian residential neighborhoods or business districts. During one recent visit, my Israeli cab driver from the airport refused to take me to my hotel in the Palestinian half of the city, instead dropping me off at the pre-1967 dividing line and insisting I get an Arab cab for the remaining ten blocks of my trip.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, the Israeli Knesset did not pass a resolution celebrating the 40th anniversary of the conquest. Indeed, Israel’s elected institutions tend not to commemorate their wars except to honor their dead. As with Israel’s war on Lebanon last summer, Congress is willing to offer near-unanimous support for policies for which the Israelis themselves are willing to engage in serious self-criticism.

Indeed, the congressional resolution celebrating the humiliating defeat of Arab armies will likely only increase anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab world. That victory brought hope to many Israelis that, with the leverage made possible by its conquest of Arab lands, and Israeli withdrawal could be exchanged for a permanent peace agreement with its Arab neighbors. Congress, however, has it made clear in a bipartisan fashion that the most important part of the occupied territories is not subject to negotiation.

Given the centrality of Jerusalem to any comprehensive peace settlement, U.S. policy has made it extremely difficult for a lasting peace settlement to be implemented. As Rep. Price observed, “the only thing likely to fully guarantee Jerusalem as the permanent capital of Israel is the official, international recognition of Israel’s neighbors and the entire international community — and this recognition is unlikely so long as Palestinian claims to their own capital and sacred city are denied.”

What the U.S. Public Thinks

Public opinion polls in the United States show that, unlike most of their congressional representatives, a sizable majority of Americans supports a shared Jerusalem. And fortunately, despite the backing of both the Republican and Democratic leadership, there have been signs that this dangerous and reactionary policy initiative is not universally supported within Congress either. Julie Schumacher Cohen of Churches for Middle East Peace observed that the failure of the resolution to get more than fourteen co-sponsors and the avoidance of a roll call vote “may reflect a lack of confidence in the outcome of such a vote and Congressional weariness with resolutions like these that do not help move the peace process forward and undermine U.S. diplomatic efforts.” Similar resolutions regarding Jerusalem passed by Congress in previous years received even greater bipartisan support.

There is more at stake here than Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is very dangerous, in this era of American military dominance, for such a large majority of Congress to go on record challenging the principles enshrined in the UN Charter that international boundaries be recognized on the basis of law, not the force of arms.

The American public must not allow the Democratic Party, given control of Congress by the voters last November, to squander its mandate by supporting resolutions that not only undermine the rights of Palestinians and the long-term security interests of Israel and the United States, but also undermine important and longstanding principles of international law.