Everyone knows Israel’s true capital

In international relations there is sometimes a situation of political make-believe whereby states conduct themselves in a manner that actively and consciously ignores reality.

On some occasions this is warranted in order to avoid a crisis or mitigate conflict. And once-relevant self-deception can become ingrained after time, even though its usefulness is debatable at best. Such is the case (or perceived to be) with Israel’s capital city.

Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. The government is located there; so are the Supreme Court and the Bank of Israel. All are located in West Jerusalem, which is seen by the international community as part of Israel’s sovereign territory — and would almost certainly be so following a future peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

East Jerusalem is another matter. The international community objects to Israel’s official position whereby East Jerusalem is considered an integral part of a unified city under Israeli sovereignty. The status of East Jerusalem (and the West Bank), as far as the international community is concerned, ought to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority with the aim of establishing a Palestinian state next to Israel.

However, the international community explicitly accepts that West Jerusalem is part of the sovereign territory of Israel and implicitly understands that the Jewish neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city would remain under Israeli rule after a peace agreement.

Given all this, why can’t the world accept West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? Why keep pretending that Israel either has no capital or has one in Tel Aviv?

There are some who refer to Jerusalem as “Israel’s self-declared capital.” But aren’t all capitals self-declared? Of course, the implied meaning is that Jerusalem is Israel’s self-declared and unrecognized capital.

After all, Jerusalem was not intended to be part of the Jewish state under the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947. So why even recognize parts of Jerusalem as part of Israel’s sovereign territory?

Well, there are other territories that were not supposed to be part of the Jewish state according to the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947. While the Arab states and the Palestinian leadership failed to endorse the plan, these too became part of the newly created Jewish state.

This was controversial, but nevertheless the international community sees these territories as sovereign Israeli territory. So why not West Jerusalem? If the Armistice Lines of 1949 (the so-called 1967 borders) are regarded as the basis for a future settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, why make a distinction between, say, Acre, Jaffa and West Jerusalem?

If logically no distinction ought to be drawn, what is the problem with recognizing, or at least accepting, that West Jerusalem is Israel’s capital?

Certainly, the present situation is comfortable to all concerned except Israel – and perhaps the ambassadors who travel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem each time they have to meet with a government official.

Pretending that Jerusalem — or at least its western part — is not Israel’s capital may be avoiding a crisis with the Arab and Muslim world. This line of thought is understandable, though peculiar. After all, most Arab and Muslim states ostensibly call for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. West Jerusalem would remain within Israeli sovereignty. So what is the problem, then, of recognizing de jure, or at least accepting de facto, that West Jerusalem is Israel’s capital?

This article was originally published on Politics in Spires, a blog on the Politics and International Relations/Studies Departments of Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England Web site.

Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer in the diplomacy program at Tel Aviv University. He received his Ph.D. from St. Antony’s College, Oxford.