What’s the Status of Jerusalem Under International Law?

The furor that’s erupted between the U.S. and Israel following Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to build 1,600 new apartments in a portion of East Jerusalem has is only made worse by the astonishing lack of accurate information circulating over the international legal status of Jerusalem.  To whom does it belong?  Who has a right to build there? Who recognizes that right? The worst way to answer that question is to read the op-ed pages, where each side advances its arguments as facts.  And when it comes to arguments, few engage as many deep emotions as Jerusalem.

For instance: We just received a press release from B’nai B’rith Canada condemning the “disparaging” remarks of a Canadian minister who criticized Israel’s buiding in East Jerusalem as contrary to international law.  Here it is:

B’nai Brith Canada has expressed disappointment at remarks Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon made yesterday at the House of Commons foreign affairs committee condemning Israel’s plans to build new apartments in a Jewish neighbourhood of East Jerusalem.  At the committee, FM Cannon “condemned” the Israeli decision and said that it is “contrary to international law.”  Since 1967, Israeli governments across the political spectrum have consistently expressed sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to freeze building for 10 months was limited to Judea and Samaria, and specifically did not include East Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem has been, and always will be, the historical, national, and religious capital of the Jewish State,” said Frank Dimant, B’nai Brith Canada’s Executive Vice President.  “We regret Minister Cannon’s remarks condemning Israel’s decision to build in its capital.

“We are confidant [sic] that the Foreign Minister’s disparaging remarks do not in any way reflect a shift in the Government’s principled position with respect to its Israeli ally.”

Here’s the thing:  the minister’s comments were precisely in keeping with Canadian—and international—law. Here is Canada’s official policy regarding Jerusalem:

Status of Jerusalem

Canada considers the status of Jerusalem can be resolved only as part of a general settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Canada does not recognize Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem.

In fact, most countries, including the United States, do not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem under the Jerusalem Law of July 30, 1980. The EU, the United Nations, the US, and most other countries happen not to recognize Israel’s right to build anywhere in East Jerusalem, even the neighborhoods that are solidly Jewish.  I’m not arguing whether they should or shouldn’t—or even that the international law can’t or shouldn’t be challenged—I’m just saying that’s the fact.

The problem is, American and I suppose Canadian Jews have been hearing from their Israeli and pro-Israeli counterparts about united, indivisible, eternal Jerusalem for so long, they assume everyone else thinks that way as well. So we are shocked, shocked, when something we assume is ours is actually considered not ours.

Most countries—I think one exception is Germany—do not recognize all of Jerusalem as Israel’s, and so do not recognize Israel’s right to build wherever it wants there.  Most countries say they will not recognize any final boundaries in Jerusalem until they are determined by agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  That’s why Jerusalem is always mentioned as being part of “final status” talks.

By the way, even among Jews (even?  especially!) the indivisibility of Jerusalem as a political entity is controversial.  One of the most fascinating essays you’ll read on this was written by an Orthodox rabbi, Yosef Kanefsky, who contra to the position of his movement, accepts the idea of a divided Jewish capital.