Eye on Jerusalem: A Diplomatic Challenge

By Chemi Shalev

Published May 23, 2003, issue of May 23, 2003.
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Old-timers often express surprising nostalgia for World War II-era Jerusalem, during the British Mandate, when the city was constantly swamped by vacationing foreign troops and exuded an air of vibrancy and cosmopolitanism. Ironically, those were “the good old days,” despite the fact that 60 years later, Jerusalem has become Israel’s largest city by far, the reunited, undivided and eternal capital of Israel.

Many of Jerusalem’s 682,000 residents are living on or below poverty level, and the city’s intake of municipal taxes per capita is thus among the lowest in the country. The city’s Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations are constantly on the rise, while young and secular Jerusalemites are continuously fleeing to the coast, in search of freedom and opportunity. Bereft of any significant industrial base, Jerusalem’s fate has gone from bad to worse in the wake of the intifada, which has virtually wiped out its economic mainstay of foreign tourism.

A massive influx of scores of embassies and hundreds of well-earning foreign diplomats could thus, at least theoretically, prove to be a godsend for the struggling capital. No major country, however, seems likely to take the lead in moving to Jerusalem before the United States does so, and as the recent book by Akiva Eldar and Nimrod Goren amply proves, despite decades of congressional noises to the contrary, Washington probably won’t budge an inch before the achievement of an overall, comprehensive peace-to-end-all-peaces between Israel and the Palestinians. Following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the region earlier this month, such a development, alas, still seems destined to wait for the messiah.

The book, “Jerusalem Capital Ambush” (2002) provides the first focused and in-depth look at the various political campaigns waged in Congress, especially during the past 20 years, to force successive administrations to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The book traces the various presidential candidates who, from 1972 onward, pledged allegiance to the idea of moving the embassy, only to conclude, as Gerald Ford did after being appointed, that “things look different from the White House.” Often the result of self-serving political initiatives aimed at attracting the Jewish vote, the book concludes that despite the historic passage of the 1995 Gingrich-Dole Embassy Bill, no administration is likely to implement the transfer before the achievement of a comprehensive peace agreement, not only because of the expected damage to America’s standing in Europe and the Arab world, but also because such a move might irrevocably upset the already minimal chances of achieving a diplomatic breakthrough.

The book traces the amazing anomaly of the lukewarm support given by successive Israeli governments to the various enthusiastic initiatives of different American lawmakers to force the issue on the president. Even the late prime minister Menachem Begin, whose allegiance to Jerusalem was supreme, failed to push then-president Jimmy Carter to move the embassy to Jerusalem as part of a “package deal” during the Camp David talks with Egypt in 1979. Israeli officials told Eldar and Goren that this may have been the last and only realistic opportunity to change the strange 55-year-old status quo by which most countries decline to place their embassies in Israel’s one and only capital.

Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was similarly wary of the first significant congressional initiative on Jerusalem, launched by the recently deceased senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. Shamir was more concerned about maintaining and increasing the levels of American financial aid to Israel, and steered clear of needlessly antagonizing the administration. A decade later, the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin discreetly and unsuccessfully tried to dissuade the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups from lobbying in favor of the Dole-Gingrich bill supporting the move to Jerusalem, viewing American support for the then-promising Oslo process as far more crucial to Israeli interests than the transfer of the American embassy and the ensuing recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Operating behind the scenes, lest he be portrayed as undermining a chance to buttress the status of Jerusalem, Rabin reluctantly expressed support for the congressional bill only after the fact, when the battle was already “lost.”

Of special and possibly contemporary interest is the book’s portrayal of the role played in 1995 by Aipac, the internal struggles within the lobbying group and its willingness to push the Gingrich-Dole bill, despite the objections voiced by Rabin and other Israeli officials. As former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin once wrote, when the left is in power in Israel, Aipac often views itself as being “more Israeli than Israel” and thus frequently finds itself at loggerheads with the ruling government in Jerusalem. By almost the same token, many leftist Israelis believe that Aipac may fail to support the current Israeli government, despite its rightist makeup, if and when Prime Minister Sharon decides to embrace the controversial “road map” to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. (On the other hand, if the difficult talks in Jerusalem this month between Sharon and Powell are any indication, such a development currently appears to be highly unlikely, at least in the near future.)

Eldar, one of Israel’s most prolific and incisive political commentators, analyzes the volatile Jerusalem issue as a microcosm and a test case of the intricate relationship between Israel, the American administration, Congress, the pro-Israel lobby and various other political action groups. Aided by the sound research of Goren of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the two have produced a comprehensive tool for professionals and laymen interested in viewing the complexities of American-Israeli relations through the prism of one specific issue.

It should be pointed out, however, that the matter of moving the American embassy to Jerusalem is in itself an oddity, traditionally generating much more passion and interest in the United States than in Israel, in general, or in Jerusalem, in particular. Israelis have traditionally reacted with marked indifference to the raging debates in Congress and in the American Jewish community about the fate of the embassy, apparently viewing them as so much “hot air” with little practical significance.

As the closing chapter of the book pointedly shows, Jerusalem is completely unprepared for any sudden migration of foreign embassies to Jerusalem, lacking sufficient real estate or infrastructure to facilitate such a move. Thus, in some distant and euphoric future, when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict finally has been resolved and the status of Jerusalem at last settled, the city’s managers may find themselves begging the potential residents to hold off and take their time. We’ve waited almost three millennia, Jerusalemites will say, and another year or two will hardly make a difference.

Chemi Shalev is Israel correspondent for the Forward and a political commentator for Ma’ariv.

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