A Strange Thing About the Controversy Over Jerusalem

President Obama is insisting that Israel cease building housing in East Jerusalem, purportedly to help lure the Palestinians into peace talks. (I say purportedly, because the way Obama has gone about it, creating a huge crisis in relations with Israel over building in Jewish neighborhoods that no one thinks are going to be returned to the Palestinians, and that never before impeded negotiations, including with Yasser Arafat, suggests that what he’s really trying to do is bring down Netanyahu’s government by creating a coalition crisis, to hopefully be replaced by a more left-leaning government.)

But here’s the strange thing: the U.S. government itself refuses to recognize the distinction between East and West Jerusalem that it is pressing on Netanyahu. The U.S. embassy remains in Tel Aviv, when it could easily be moved to West Jerusalem. Americans who live in West Jerusalem and try to put “Israel” on their Israel-born children’s passports discover that the State Department insists that the passports read “Jerusalem,” not “Israel,” for “country of birth.” And if you look at official foreign service material, “Jerusalem” is an undivided mass with no country attached to it.

You would think that if the U.S. is pushing the position that West Jerusalem is “part of Israel,” but all of East Jerusalem, including the Jewish neighborhoods, has an unclear status that must be resolved as part of peace process negotiations, the U.S. would at least formally acknowledge that West Jerusalem is indisputably part of Israel. Until it does, what is to stop Obama or some future president from next demanding that Israel stop building in West Jerusalem as well? (UPDATE: As historical background, all of Jerusalem was given international status under the U.N.’s 1948 partition plan, which is why few nations recognized Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital even before 1967. And unlike, say, the Galilee, Israel’s “occupation” of West Jerusalem has been a major diplomatic issue with, e.g., the Vatican. So from an Israeli perspective, if Israel agrees to treat all of East Jerusalem, even neighborhoods from which the Jewish population was expelled in 1948, as occupied territory, West Jerusalem is potentially jeopardized as well.)

UPDATE: A commenter writes:

Out here in the real world, there was a diplomatic crisis because Netanyahu’s administration stuck a big thumb in our eye by announcing new building approvals smack dab in the middle of the Vice President’s visit.

In fact, the Netanyahu Administration didn’t announce anything during Biden’s visit. All of Jerusalem is part of Israel under Israeli law, and the “announcement” was made by the equivalent of a local zoning board run by a right-wing party, without Netanyahu’s prior consent or knowledge, as the equivalent of the building in question getting past a new stage of the zoning process. Even the aggressive Israeli media has not been able to find any evidence that Netanyahu had foreknowledge. Embarrassing nevertheless, yes, for which Israel has profusely apologized, but a poor excuse for a diplomatic crisis. As numerous commentators have pointed out, it was certainly far less egregious than this, which elicited not a peep from the Obama Administration:

Despite the Palestinian Authority’s announcement that it had postponed the inauguration of a square in el-Bireh named after Dalal Mughrabi, the Fatah woman who led the 1978 Coastal Road massacre in which 37 Israeli civilians and an American photographer were killed, and 71 were wounded, Fatah officials on Thursday evening went ahead with the ceremony.

In addition, the PA on Sunday launched a seminar named after Mughrabi. The four-day seminar, called “Martyr Dalal Mughrabi Camp,” is being held in Jericho under the auspices of the PA’s Military Science Academy. Its main goal is to discuss the legislative and local elections in the PA territories.

But I’d be happy to see the argument that the local Jerusalem board’s announcement was somehow more of a snub to the U.S. than the honoring by the P.A. of a terrorist who murdered an American.