Why didn’t the U.S. and all other countries recognize residential, non-holy, west-of-the-armistice-line Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? At the time the U.S. was still attached to an idea, proposed in the United Nations partition resolution of 1947, that the vast area of greater Jerusalem (including residential neighborhoods) as well as Bethlehem should be a “Corpus Separatum,” a separate area that would be governed by the international community.
This fiction never existed anywhere but on paper. It never existed because the Arabs rejected the partition proposal and started a war to prevent it from being realized. When they lost that war, Jerusalem west of the armistice line became Israel’s, and Jerusalem east of the line came under Jordanian occupation and entered an extended period of disputed claims. So the U.S., while recognizing Israel within the armistice lines, chose a policy that held the status of Israel’s capital hostage to a fiction that never had a chance of existing.
When Israel captured the eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967, during the Six-Day War, it moved to unite the Old City to the east with the residential city to the west, and in addition annexed dozens of Arab villages to create a massive municipal area that became what many Israeli politicians call “undivided” or “united” Jerusalem. This was indeed a controversial move, especially as it was followed by massive building of Jewish residential neighborhoods in that annexed area; this move continues to not be recognized by any country to this day. It is also controversial within Israel, where many Israelis continue to support the possibility that a future Palestinian state would have its capital in the eastern part of Jerusalem.
As the fiction of the “Corpus Separatum” faded from memory, Israel’s annexation of the areas east of the 1967 line became the new reason for not recognizing any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In this way, the U.S. has been punishing Israel twice: It has been denying any legitimate claims Israel had in Jerusalem east of the armistice line, including with respect to the Jewish holy sites in the Old City and the Jewish Quarter, and, until Trump’s announcement, would not acknowledge that at the very least, west of that line, Jerusalem is legitimately Israel’s capital.
Trump’s declaration finally puts an end to this nonsensical policy. By dismissing the fiction of the “Corpus Separatum” at last, the U.S. can stop denying Israel, alone among the nations, a basic national sovereign right to establish its capital in undisputed territory.
Trump used only the ambiguous term “Jerusalem” in his speech, saying, “We are not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” It would have been better if Trump had specified that the U.S. is only recognizing Israel’s capital in Jerusalem west of 1967 line—in other words, that the U.S. is simply ending the illogical policy that holds the undisputed status of Jerusalem west of the armistice line hostage to the ongoing dispute over Jerusalem east of that line.