Earlier this week, US President George W. Bush came within the stroke of a pen of partially righting a historic wrong and forcing the State Department to begin treating Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
The opportunity arose after the US Senate and House of Representatives last week approved the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, which authorizes the State Department's budget of $8.6 billion for next year and lays out Congress's policy priorities for the department as well.
Section 214 of the law, entitled "United States Policy with Respect to Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel," contains a host of provisions that would oblige the State Department to stop treating Jerusalem as if it were a city without a country. It prohibits the use of government funds for any official US document that lists countries and their capital cities but fails to identify Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and it also states that a US citizen born in the city can choose to have Israel listed on his passport as his country of birth. Until now, that section of the passport simply reads "Jerusalem," as if the city floats in thin air rather than belonging to, let alone being the capital of, any country.
The law would also require the US Consulate in Jerusalem to operate under the auspices of the US Ambassador to Israel, who is based in Tel Aviv. The importance of this provision lies in the fact that until now, the Jerusalem consulate has been operating as an autonomous entity, serving in effect as a US embassy to the Palestinians.
Finally, the law also calls on the president to immediately begin relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
On Monday night, the President signed the bill into law, but he was quick to declare he would view Section 214 as "advisory" in nature only, and that he did not feel bound by it. While presidents have long bristled at, opposed, and even vetoed legislation on foreign policy grounds, once a bill is signed, it becomes law like any other. Bush's decision to sign and yet refuse to implement this provision is therefore an extreme and perhaps unprecedented step.
Not surprisingly, supporters of the bill were quick to criticize Bush for his actions. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who was a major force behind the legislation, said, "The president is wrong on the substance and he is wrong on the law. It's going to set up an interesting legal conflict. Ultimately, the court is going to have to decide whether Congress had the right to pass this law and whether the president has the right to sign it but not implement it."
However the constitutional question works itself out, Bush's action was both surprising and disappointing. After two years in which Israel has found itself the target of unprecedented Palestinian terrorism, which has included the carrying out of ruthless attacks in the heart of Jerusalem itself, Bush could have sent a strong and unequivocal message to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians that there is a price to be paid for terrorism and violence.
After all, at the Camp David Summit in July 2000, then prime minister Ehud Barak effectively agreed to divide Jerusalem and yield control over the eastern portion of the city. He even expressed a willingness to share sovereignty over the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site. Nevertheless, Arafat summarily rejected Barak's overly-generous proposals, and chose to launch a war that grips the region till today. By signing the bill and agreeing to enforce its provisions, Bush could have signaled the Palestinians that there is a price to be paid for extremism.
Instead, the US president has thrust the Middle East backwards, to the days when the West would habitually kowtow to Arab demands regardless of how radical they might be. And while he undoubtedly did this with an eye toward an upcoming operation in Iraq, and the Arab world's unenthusiastic response, Bush's action may have precisely the opposite of its intended effect.
Especially at this moment before the American campaign in Iraq, it is important to remember that action's larger purpose. As Bush has eloquently pointed out, this is not just a fight to oust one dictator or crush one terrorist group, but to dry the swamp of terror by promoting freedom and democracy. Bush seems to understand that to prevent another September 11, he must change an entire region that has become a spawning ground for a militant form of Islam. September 11 was one product of this militancy, but the utter rejection of Israel is another.
The attempt to deny Israel its own capital in the city that is synonomous with 3,000 years of Jewish hopes and dreams is a centerpiece of the Arab rejection of Israel's right to exist. No would dream of dividing Mecca, Cairo, Damascus, or Washington, yet it has become an article of faith that dividing Jerusalem will bring peace. It is scandalous that for over 50 years US policy has played into this cardinal plank of Arab radicalism. If Bush really wants to signal that the Middle East must change, undoing this shameful aspect of US policy would be a good start.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post