With the start of the new, Republican-led Congress, the issue of Jerusalem will be converging on President Obama from two separate directions now, even as a viable peace process to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears more distant than ever.
The Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2015, introduced in early January by Republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Dean Heller of Nevada, seeks to deprive Obama of the discretion he and earlier presidents have enjoyed to kick the unresolved matter of Jerusalem’s status down the road. The bill, and companion legislation in the House, would force the administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the U.S. Embassy there, in defiance of world consensus.
The bill’s introduction comes as the administration braces for a Supreme Court decision on a long-fought case that could also compel it to acknowledge Jerusalem as part of Israel. This would break with the U.S. stance under the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, signed by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the United States and the Soviet Union, which calls for the city’s final status to be addressed through negotiation.
For many American Jews and supporters of Israel, the idea of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may seem like a no-brainer. After conquering the eastern sector of the divided city in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel quickly annexed the newly acquired bundle of Palestinian precincts and declared the city to now be unified as its “eternal capital.” But no country other than Israel itself has ever recognized this annexation.
Congress, where pro-Israel sentiments run strong and are unconstrained by the executive branch’s diplomatic considerations, has long bridled against this American nonrecognition. In 1995, the lawmakers passed a bill requiring the administration to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to relocate the U.S. Embassy there. The legislation, however, was never implemented.
Using a waiver clause included in the statute at the Clinton administration’s insistence, every president occupying the White House since the bill’s passage — Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — made a point of sending Congress a letter every six months deferring implementation of the law due to national security considerations.
The new Senate bill and its companion House legislation, sponsored by Republican Scott Garrett of New Jersey, could be different. The proposed legislation denies the president any national security waiver. It would force the administration to take immediate action to move the embassy.
“It is long past due for our government to finally and unequivocally recognize Israel’s historical capital both in word and deed,” Cruz said in a statement after introducing his bill.
But Daniel Seidemann, an American-born Israeli attorney who is an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem, derided this push as one “detached from the urban and geopolitical realities on the ground in Jerusalem.” Such a step, he warned, would cost America its status as a fair broker in the region and as a legitimate diplomatic player.
“What would it look like if the U.S. held its annual Fourth of July celebration at its embassy in Jerusalem and no one came?” he asked.