Q&A: U.S. declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has sparked worldwide anger. But there’s been plenty of precedent

A view of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, some of the holiest sites for Jews and Muslims, is seen in Jerusalem's Old City.
A view of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, some of the holiest sites for Jews and Muslims, is seen in Jerusalem’s Old City.
(Oded Balilty / Associated Press)
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According to the Bible, the first siege of Jerusalem occurred in the year 587 BC, when the city and its temple were destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II.

In the 2,605 intervening years, virtually every empire and every great leader has desired to have Jerusalem, or, at least, to leave his mark upon the city.

Consider this: In August of the year 70, the Roman army under Titus’ command devastated the Judean rebel soldiers holding the city, leading to the Roman sack of Jerusalem and the ruin of the second temple.

Almost 2,000 years later, one can enjoy a gelato in the shade of Rome’s Arch of Titus, still standing in commemoration of his triumph.

President Trump’s Dec. 7 announcement, that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy here, broke a 70-year diplomatic precedent, kept a campaign promise and provoked worldwide outrage.

In a video, an exultant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly thanked Trump for his “historic decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.” And on Monday, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, emboldened by Trump’s move, passed a bill requiring that a two-thirds majority of Knesset members vote before any part of the city can be relinquished in any possible peace agreement.

The legislation prompted a harsh and immediate response from senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi, who referred to Israel as a “belligerent occupier” and said the law “severely changes the status of Jerusalem and creates and illegal and extrajudicial Israeli and Jewish exclusivity over all of Jerusalem.”

In a final twist, Trump on Tuesday implied that he had done the parties a favor with his declaration on Israel’s capital. “We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table,” he tweeted.

He also complained that the U.S. gets “no appreciation or respect” for the “hundred[s] of millions of dollars a year” it allocates to the Palestinians, and concluded with a question: “With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

So what is the status of Jerusalem?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Ask the United Nations: It will tell you that Jerusalem is a corpus separatum (Latin for “separate body.”) The term is what remains of a plan never put into place, the U.N.’s 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine, under which Jerusalem, following the withdrawal of the British Empire, would be governed by an international, extra-territorial authority. While Jerusalem has been governed by many powers (forget Israel, what about the Kingdom of Babylon or the Ottoman Empire?) it has never been ruled by consortium.

Ask the Palestinians: They will say it is an occupied city. The Palestinian Authority claims East Jerusalem for the capital of a future state of Palestine. Having never been implemented, , it is unclear if the concept of corpus separatum has any legal standing, but in her statement, Ashrawi, a lawyer, chose to revive the term.

Ask the Israelis: They say Jerusalem is their capital, plain and simple. Israel won the western half of Jerusalem in 1948, when an alliance of Arab states refused to accept the partition plan that created the nation of Israel. Israel took East Jerusalem from Jordan when it defeated a coalition of Arab armies in 1967. Then in 1980, to universal censure, Israel officially annexed all of Jerusalem to its territory.

With or without international recognition, Jerusalem has functioned as Israel’s de facto capital since 1949, and all state offices are located here, most of them in West Jerusalem. The international community keeps its embassies on politically neutral territory in coastal Tel Aviv, but nonetheless conducts all its official business with Israel in Jerusalem, necessitating a perpetual commute for diplomats assigned to Israel.

So most countries do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but operate as if it were the capital?

Basically, yes. On Saturday, for example, Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide, the foreign minister of Norway, a country that does not formally recognize Israeli sovereignty over the city and keeps its embassy in Tel Aviv, will arrive in Jerusalem for a three-day state visit.

Most countries implicitly hold that Israel should retain sovereignty over West Jerusalem if and when a separate Palestinian nation is created, and that a future state of Palestine should have its capital in East Jerusalem. This has been until now the official position of the United States. Yet most countries maintain their missions to the Palestinian Authority not in East Jerusalem but in Ramallah, the Palestinians’ headquarters in the West Bank. But no one likes to talk about it.

Following Trump’s proclamation in December, European foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reiterated that the EU’s position continues to be that “Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel and Palestine in the framework of a future two-state solution.”

The EU keeps its embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv and its mission to the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem.


Yes. Nine countries have consulates or delegations in Jerusalem, functioning as representative offices to the Palestinians. Some, including the American Consulate, are located in West Jerusalem. With the others in Ramallah. And embassies in Tel Aviv.

If you think that makes no sense, welcome to the Middle East.

Does any country other than the United States recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?

That depends on what recognition you recognize.

Most Latin American countries kept their embassies in Jerusalem until around 1980, when the U.N. voted to condemn Israel for annexing the city. Last week, when revealing that Guatemala planned to follow Trump’s lead, its foreign minister, Sandra Jovel, said she’d be “returning” to Jerusalem “because we are friends and historical allies with Israel.”

The Czech Republic voiced a similar point of view, with President Milos Zeman regretfully saying that had he moved fast enough to recognize Jerusalem as the capital, “We would have been the first to do so.”

At a Dec. 21 vote at the U.N., Russia voted with most of the world to censure Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem. Only eight months earlier, in April, Russia had declared that it “views West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” (with East Jerusalem to be negotiated as the capital of a future Palestinian state.) Moscow’s embassy remains in Tel Aviv.

But how much of this is new?

The United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and called for Jerusalem to remain an undivided city under the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act. The law contained an escape hatch: Any president could declare that “national security” compelled the United States to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv. The waiver, as the declaration is called, has to be renewed by presidential signature every six months, and twice a year, ever since, it has been renewed.

Last month, as he made his dramatic announcement, Trump signed the waiver for the second time.

He did? So what does Trump’s decision change?

For now, no one knows. The big presidential announcement coupled with no measurable change in the city has for now created a reality in which world leaders are loudly sparring over their positions (if you wonder why, ask Titus) whereas average Jerusalem residents already feel pretty sure they know what country they live in.

Does the new Israeli law passed this week change anything?

Good question! Right-wing Israeli legislators spent Tuesday congratulating themselves over the law’s passage, but like their American counterparts 23 years ago, they carefully wrote a dodge into the law. As explained by Jerusalem Post analyst Lahav Harkov, the bill creates a loophole that would still allow for future Palestinian control of parts of the city.

So what is it about Jerusalem?

It is a breathtaking hilltop city overlooking the Judean desert. On a clear day one can see across the Dead Sea through to the russet Moab mountains of Jordan. It boasts some of the world’s top high-tech incubators, a thriving bar scene, some of the holiest sites of three major world religions and human civilization reaching back some 5,000 years. It doesn’t take a latter-day emperor to hold it dear.


Trump says U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as capital of Israel, upending U.S. policy and sparking protests

Who really wants Trump to recognize Jerusalem? His evangelical supporters at home