The Jerusalem Issue: How Romney Hit the Third Rail of Mideast Diplomacy

The candidate's call to acknowledge what anyone can see is Israel's capital is far more complicated than it seems, and a microcosm of the crucial but difficult role that the U.S. plays in securing peace.

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Mitt Romney speaks in Jerusalem. (AP)

There is a spot in Jerusalem zoned and ready for the American embassy. It's on Hebron Road, south of the Old City and on the road toward Bethlehem, waiting for the day that the United States will move its diplomatic headquarters from Tel Aviv to Israel's self-declared, de facto capital.

Mitt Romney, visiting Israel over the weekend, suggested he might try to make that day an early one. "A nation has the capacity to choose its own capital city, and Jerusalem is Israel's capital," he told CNN. "Our embassy would be in the capital." The comments made news and sparked controversy even though he took a much softer line that have other Republican presidential candidates who insisted they would move the embassy on the first day of their presidency. "The timing of that is something I would want to work out with the [Israeli] government," Romney said.

The Israeli government sits in Jerusalem, but there is not one foreign embassy here, a conspicuous break with standard diplomatic practice of housing your embassy in a country's capital. Romney's comments hit on a long-running complaint from hawkish Israel supporters, and something that would seem painfully obvious, at least on the surface: how is America supposed to support Israel if we can't even bring ourselves to acknowledge what any observer can see is the Israeli capital? But, as is often the case with Israel, even this seemingly simple question is fraught, contentious, and freighted with the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In a way, it's a microcosm of the conflict itself, and the delicate path that the U.S. must walk if it wants to oversee peace.

The issue of America's one-day embassy in Jerusalem is so thorny that, in May of 1998, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich threatened to publicly rebuke Jerusalem Mayor (and future Prime Minister) Ehud Olmert for nearly forcing Gingrich's hand on it, according to an Israeli expert on Jerusalem issues named Danny Seidemann, elements of whose story were reported by the Associated Press at the time. Gingrich had planned to visit the proposed embassy site with Olmert and to lay a cornerstone, a sort of virtual groundbreaking and purely symbolic gesture of Gingrich's aspiration to move the embassy from Tel Aviv. But the White House talked him out of it, according to the A.P. Instead, he took a bus tour of the city with Olmert; when the bus passed by the embassy site, Gingrich conspicuously avoided even turning his head to look. Seidemann, citing an American consular official whom he says was also on the bus, claims that Olmert had diverted their bus at the last moment toward the embassy, where a number of reporters were waiting, apparently hoping that Gingrich might visit the site anyway. When the famously pro-Israel speaker of the House realized what was happening, he allegedly warned Olmert against stopping the bus, pledging to tell the assembled reporters that he had been brought there against his will.

There is an immediate reason why the U.S., like every other country on earth, refuses to put its embassy in Jerusalem or to officially acknowledge it as the capital city, and then there is a deeper reason.

On the surface, it's because Jerusalem's status is still officially undetermined, has been for decades, and is ultimately up to Israelis and Palestinians to decide. Both Israelis and Palestinians live in Jerusalem and both claim it as their capital city. In theory, there is a relatively straightforward solution to this: the city would be divided between a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and an Israeli capital in what is now West Jerusalem, plus a handful of areas where mostly Israelis live. But actually getting there is supposed to be part of "permanent status agreement," or a sort of catch-all grand bargain between Israelis and Palestinians. In other words, it's not officially the Israeli capital or the Palestinian capital, under the terms of the peace process, until both Israelis and Palestinians agree to the division of the city. Moving the U.S. embassy to West Jerusalem would declare that the U.S. sees it as the official Israeli capital, which would break the terms of the peace process. It would also be a unilateral American move, in what is supposed to be a process led by Israelis and Palestinians, not by outsiders.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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