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.

But there's a deeper reason that has to do with America's role in the Israel-Palestine peace process, and with what makes that role so valuable and important. The U.S. is unique in its ability to bring both Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. It gives a lot of aid money to both sides, spends a lot of time talking to both, and has worked hard to maintain credibility with both. (Yes, a number of countries can claim greater credibility with the Palestinian side, but who else has America's leverage with Israel?) The U.S plays mediator, and its value as a mediator of the Israel-Palestine peace process is incumbent on its respect for that process and for both Israeli and Palestinian concerns.

Unilaterally moving the American embassy would circumvent and thus discredit the peace process, would ostentatiously privilege the Israeli claim to Jerusalem over the Palestinian, and "would undermine the United States' role as a fair broker," Seidemann told me. "This would be perceived as a loss of [American] stewardship over the peace process." It would also "put [the U.S.] out of sync with the existing and potential forces of moderation in the Arab world" that are willing to accept a divided Jerusalem, forgoing some Arabs' untenable demands for control over the entire city. Maybe this is why Gingrich, a hawkishly and sometimes quite aggressively pro-Israeli Republican, refused to even mount a symbolic cornerstone in the American embassy site.

Still, some U.S. political leaders who wish to aid Israel have long pushed for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem as a way to affirm their support of Israel's claim over the city. But it's their insistence on doing it unilaterally, and in a way that conspicuously avoids acknowledging Palestinian claims over the city, that would make it problematic. In 1995, Congress almost unanimously passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandated that the State Department must move the embassy by June 1999 or lose half of its funding for building and maintaining its many foreign offices. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all refused to implement the law.

The U.S. can't acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel's capital because the city's status is still to-be-determined, according to the peace process, which also makes clear that it's not America that gets to do the determining. Unilaterally moving the embassy there would, in a sense, declare that the U.S., the single most important arbiter of the Israel-Palestine peace process, no longer takes that process seriously. After all the work to get Israel and Palestine to follow the peace process, why would the U.S. want to so deeply subvert it?

Maybe most telling are the practical problems of unilaterally moving the American embassy to the divided city of Jerusalem. Do you declare West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, then go ahead and declare East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital? That's not really a position you hear from American proponents of moving the embassy. They tend to say one of two things: either, as Michele Bachmann did in her presidential platform, that the U.S. "Will fully recognize Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital," implicitly rejecting Palestinian claims to the city's east and urging full Israeli control, breaking from America's role as the arbiter of peace to one of enforcing Israeli dominance; or, as Romney did in his comments, by simply not mentioning east or west at all. The latter, after all, could be heard as nothing more than a non-controversial aspiration for peace.

In actual execution, it's easy to see Romney's position as consistent with Obama's, and with that of every president before him: we'd love to move our capital to Jerusalem, just as soon as the Israelis and Palestinians can agree on the city's peaceful and mutually acceptable division. But this was plainly a trip meant to highlight differences between Romney's Israel policies and Obama's, and it's not hard to hear the old pro-Israel dogwhistles for an immediate and unilateral move. It's difficult to imagine a President Romney actually going through with that -- after all, he left himself acres of wiggle room in his statement. But the mere fact that he made his statement and so carefully is a reminder of the remarkably fine line that American leaders must walk between diplomacy and advocacy, between crowd-pleasing politics and more hard-headed foreign policies, between supporting Israel's policies and supporting a peace process that is ultimately in the country's interest.