U.S. (non)-Recognition of Sovereignty in Jerusalem: A Consistent Policy, pre-1948 - Present

[Originally published August 12, 2011, in the context of the Supreme Court's consideration of a case challenging longstanding U.S. policy in Jerusalem (the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the Obama Administration and - by extension - every U.S. administration that preceded it.  -Archived version is here]

The United States does not recognize the sovereignty of any party in any part of Jerusalem (East or West).   This is not a new policy imposed by the Obama Administration, as some seem to believe or want others to believe.  It is a policy that dates back to pre-1948, and has been followed by every U.S. Administration since, regardless of the President or party in the White House.  Across this entire period, the policy has applied equally to Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian claims in the city.  What follows are representative examples across this entire period illustrating the consistency of this policy.

1.  Pre-1948

Prior to 1948, the U.S. supported internationalization of the city of Jerusalem, under the leadership of the United Nations.

Department of State, May 11, 1948"The General Assembly should establish a Temporary United Nations Trusteeship for the City of Jerusalem under the direction of the Trusteeship Council or some other form of special regime under the United Nations auspices for that city."

2. 1948-1967

After Israel took control of West Jerusalem in 1948 and proclaimed independence, the U.S. position on sovereignty in Jerusalem did not change, with the U.S. recognizing no sovereignty in the city (neither Israeli sovereignty in the part of the city under Israeli control, nor Jordanian sovereignty in the part of the city under Jordanian control).  During this period the U.S. continued to support internationalization of the city, with a strong United Nations role.

Department of State, August 13, 1948: "We continue to believe that Jerusalem should not be placed under the sole authority of either side and that some degree of UN responsibility still essential..."

President Harry S. Truman, October 24, 1948: "We continue to support, within the framework of the United Nations, the internationalization of Jerusalem and the protection of the holy places in Palestine."

Department of State cable, May 31, 1962 (with respect to Jordanian control over the part of Jerusalem that includes the key holy sites): "The United States...has since maintained its position that the Holy Places in the Jerusalem area are of international interest to a degree which transcends ordinary considerations of sovereignty."

3. Post-1967 - present

Following the 1967 War, in which Israel took control of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem (and subsequently unilaterally expanded Jerusalem's borders and applied Israeli law to the entire area) the U.S. position on sovereignty in Jerusalem did not change, with the U.S. recognizing no sovereignty in any part of the city and categorically rejecting unilateral actions by Israel to change the status quo in the city. During this period the U.S. began talking about a solution (to the conflict, including Jerusalem) to be determined by "the parties to the conflict," via an agreement endorsed by the international community.   Over time, as Israeli-Arab peace efforts took off, that language began to refer explicitly to "negotiations," and following the Oslo Accords, began to refer explicitly to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and referring to Jerusalem as an issue to be resolved in final status (or permanent status) negotiations.

Department of State, June 28, 1967, in response to the Israeli decision to apply Israeli law to expanded East Jerusalem (de facto annexation): "The hasty administrative action taken today cannot be regarded as determining the future of the holy places or the status of Jerusalem in relation to them. The United States has never recognized such unilateral actions by any of the states in the area as governing the international status of Jerusalem..."

Department of State, July 5, 1967, [explanation of U.S. policy on Jerusalem sent to all posts following the U.S. abstention on UN General Assembly Resolution 2254 (ES-V)]: "US views on question of Jerusalem remain as stated by USG on June 19 and June 28 and again by Ambassador Goldberg in UNGA.  We will continue to stress our opposition to any unilateral efforts to change the permanent position in Jerusalem or elsewhere, and to insist that any such change be accomplished only by internationally effective action, taking full account of international interests. We do not recognize Israeli measures as having effected changes in formal status of Jerusalem."

U.S. statement at the UN on July 14, 1967, in the context of the discussion of UN General Assembly Resolution 3354 (ES-V) (on which the U.S. also abstained):   "...the United States does not accept or recognize these measures as altering the status of Jerusalem.  My Government does not recognize that the administrative measures taken by the Government of Israel on 28 June can be regarded as the last word on the matter, and we regret that they were taken, We insist that the measures taken cannot be considered as other than interim and provisional, and not as prejudging the final and permanent status of Jerusalem..."

Message from Secretary of State Rusk to Israel Foreign Minister Eban February 13, 1968"...It was to underline our deep concern in this matter that I recently asked Ambassador Barbour to reiterate to you our views on the Jerusalem question. I would not want to leave the impression that our position is merely a formal one. I am firmly convinced that it goes to the heart of the problem of achieving a settlement and would appreciate an indication from you that your Government understands the depth of our concern."

July 1, 1969, statement at the UN by U.S. representative to the United Nations, Charles Yost: "The pattern of behavior authorized under the Geneva Convention and international law is clear: the occupier must maintain the occupied area as intact and unaltered as possible, without interfering with the customary life of the area, and any changes must be necessitated by the immediate needs of the occupation. I regret to say that the actions of Israel in the occupied portion of Jerusalem present a different picture, one which gives rise to understandable concern that the eventual disposition of East Jerusalem may be prejudiced, and that the private rights and activities of the population are already being affected and altered.  My Government regrets and deplores this pattern of activity, and it has so informed the Government of Israel on numerous occasions since June 1967. We have consistently refused to recognize those measures as having anything but a provisional character and do not accept them as affecting the ultimate status of Jerusalem... as far as the United States is concerned such unilateral measures, including expropriation of land or other administrative action taken by the Government of Israel, cannot be considered other than interim and provisional and cannot affect the present international status nor prejudge the final and permanent status of Jerusalem. The United States position could not be clearer." (emphasis added)

March 23, 1976, statement by U.S. Representative to the United Nations William Scranton"I emphasize, as did Ambassador Goldberg, that as far as the United States is concerned such unilateral measures, including expropriation of land or other administrative action taken by the Government of Israel, cannot be considered other than interim and provisional and cannot affect the present international status nor prejudge the final and permanent status of Jerusalem. The U.S. position could not be clearer. Since 1967 we have restated here, in other fora, and to the Government of Israel that the future of Jerusalem will be determined only through the instruments and processes of negotiation, agreement, and accommodation. Unilateral attempts to predetermine that future have no standing..." (emphasis added)

September 1, 1982, President Ronald Reagan"...we remain convinced that Jerusalem must remain undivided, but its final status should be decided through negotiations."

March 5, 1990, Statement by Press Secretary Fitzwater on President Bush's Telephone Conversation with Seymour Reich of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations:  "...The President also reiterated that U.S. policy toward Jerusalem is unchanged. The United States supports a united Jerusalem whose final status is determined by negotiations."

September 13, 1993, Dennis Ross in briefing following the signing of the Declaration of Principles:  
"Question: ...you don't need two years of sorting out to know that Jerusalem's future and a Palestinian state are issues.... What is the U.S. position, if it has one, on those two issues today?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: We're not going to get into what has to be resolved in final status...

5.  Examples of longstanding U.S. policy/actions reflecting non-recognition of any sovereignty in Jerusalem

•    The United States has voted in favor of, or abstained on (refrained from vetoing) at least 5 United Nations Security Council Resolutions censuring Israel for seeking to change the status of Jerusalem (as well as at least two UN General Assembly Resolutions, noted in #3, above).

o    On May 21, 1968, the UN Security Council adopted UNSCR 252, strongly objecting to Israel moves to change the status of Jerusalem.  The US refrained from vetoing that resolution, allowing it to pass.
o    On July 3, 1969, the UN Security Council adopted UNSCR 267, even more strongly objecting to Israeli moves to change the status of Jerusalem.  That resolution passed unanimously, with U.S. voting in favor.
o    On September 25, 1971, the UN Security Council adopted UNSCR 298, objecting once again to Israel moves to change the status of Jerusalem.  The US voted in favor of that resolution, allowing it to pass.  
o    On June 30, 1980, the UN Security Council adopted UNSCR 476, rejecting Israeli moves to alter the status of Jerusalem.  The US refrained from vetoing that resolution, allowing it to pass.   
o    On August 20, 1980, the UN Security Council adopted UNSCR 478, censuring Israel in the "strongest terms" for enacting a new "Basic Law" changing the status of Jerusalem.  The US refrained from vetoing that resolution, allowing it to pass.

•    The U.S. has threatened to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution (and oppose any resolution in the United Nations General Assembly) that seeks to predetermine the political status of Jerusalem or any other permanent status issues, including borders.  This threat is aimed squarely at Palestinian efforts to have the United Nations recognize Palestinian claims of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

•    The United States maintains its embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv, and an independent Consulate General in Jerusalem - a status quo that dates back to the birth of the state of Israel.

o    The U.S. has in the past actively discouraged other countries from moving their embassies to Jerusalem (see this February 20, 1959 cable, sent to all posts, laying out U.S. policy on the issue; also this May 31, 1962 memo again laying out, in detail, U.S. policy on the issue, and this January 18, 1962 memo laying out a spat over the issue between the U.S. and Israel.)

o    In 1984, President Reagan threatened to veto a bill seeking to force relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem.  

o    Since 1995, when Congress passed legislation (Public Law 104-45) seeking to force the president to move the embassy to Jerusalem, every U.S. president, Republican and Democrat, has waived implementation of the legislation on the grounds of U.S. national security interests.

•    Contacts with all Government of Israel bodies and officials are handled by the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv (in a policy pre-dating 1967); such contacts in Jerusalem are limited and it is explicit U.S. policy that they do not represent any change in the U.S. position regarding Jerusalem (for example, see these cables discussing how the U.S. would respond to the transfer of the Israeli Foreign Ministry to Jerusalem in June 1953, dated August 9, 1955 and October 20, 1955).  Contacts with the Jerusalem Municipality bodies and officials fall under the authority of the Consulate General in Jerusalem.

•    U.S. Embassy officials do not generally attend official Israeli celebrations and ceremonies in Jerusalem (see these cables from September 13, 1955, and August 22, 1966 referring to this practice, and this April 18, 1968 cable detailing this longstanding practice in the post-1967 context). 

•    Israeli government officials are invited to U.S. celebrations and ceremonies at the Embassy in Tel Aviv, not the Consulate in Jerusalem (e.g., the annual Fourth of July celebration).
•    On official U.S. government-issued documents and publications, Jerusalem is referred to simply as "Jerusalem."          

o    In March 1964, the State Department formally discontinued references to "Jerusalem, Palestine" on passports issued or renewed in Jerusalem, and clarified that all stamps, stationary, and signs related to the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem read only "Jerusalem".

o    Congress has repeatedly tried to force the State Department to record Jerusalem as Israel's capital on government-issued documents. In 1999, this resulted in a veto from President Clinton (of HR 2670).  His veto statement noted:  "The bill includes a number of provisions regarding the conduct of foreign affairs that raise serious constitutional concerns. Provisions concerning Jerusalem are objectionable on constitutional, foreign policy, and operational grounds. The actions called for by these provisions would prejudice the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations..."

o    When in 2002 President George Bush also opposed allowed these same provisions to pass into law (as Sec. 214 of HR 1646, which became Public Law 107-228) in order to permit the passage of the underlying legislation, he issued a signing statement that asserted: "Section 214, concerning Jerusalem, impermissibly interferes with the President's constitutional authority to conduct the Nation's foreign affairs and to supervise the unitary executive branch. Moreover, the purported direction in section 214 would, if construed as mandatory rather than advisory, impermissibly interfere with the President's constitutional authority to formulate the position of the United States, speak for the Nation in international affairs, and determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign states. U.S. policy regarding Jerusalem has not changed."