The origins of this problem are worth considering, as they have been part of a regional strategy to maintain stability and preserve delicate balance. Envoy to the Promised Land, the newly published diary of James G. McDonald, the first US ambassador to Israel, reveals why Jerusalem, from the beginnings of the new state, was such a sensitive issue, why the symbolism of the embassy’s location mattered, and how the U.S. committed itself to Tel Aviv
In the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine, Jerusalem and its environs were to have been under international control because of its mixed population and its many Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Holy Places. This proved unworkable. When Israel’s Arab neighbors attacked the new state in mid-1948, Israel barely managed to hold the western section of Jerusalem, called the New City, and protect the more than 100,000 Jews who lived there. Jordanian troops held eastern Jerusalem, including the historic Old City, on whose ramparts these troops sat. Even after a July 15, 1948 truce imposed by the United Nations, sporadic shooting erupted in the city. Israelis of almost all political parties regarded Jerusalem—the capital of ancient Israel—as an essential part of the new state, and the Provisional Government of Israel appointed a military governor for the New City to organize its defenses.
After Israel’s first democratic election in January 1949 and the securing of full recognition by the U.S. and a number of other states, the new government established civilian rule in western Jerusalem and began to move its government offices there. As an official statement of sorts, the opening ceremony of the newly elected Knesset was set for Jerusalem in February 1949. The Israeli government invited all foreign diplomats to the session, hoping to garner international acceptance of the government’s relocation.
Ambassador McDonald thought that that his non-attendance at the event would be taken as an insult. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, understanding the importance of images in a region in which peace – or at least a minimum of violence — was essential for U.S. interests, was more circumspect. The U.S. was the key broker for a peaceful settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and though Jordan’s King Abdullah was willing to partition Jerusalem, the rest of the Arab world was not. With armistice agreements slowly coming into existence after difficult negotiations, it made little sense to roil the Arab world and the UN over a symbolic gesture that would be followed by real expectations that the embassy itself would move.
President Harry S. Truman, who had recognized Israel over the vehement objections of the U.S. State Department and America’s closest allies, saw the wisdom of moderation on Jerusalem. McDonald was thus ordered to skip the Knesset opening and to conduct no official business in the city. Though the Israeli government was irritated, it deferred to the U.S. on what were ultimately the international aspects of the issue. As Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion put it privately to McDonald in February 1950, “We have no desire to be petty in this matter…. We are more concerned to establish ourselves in Jerusalem.”
Indeed, McDonald and the U.S. government showed good faith. McDonald privately urged the Israelis to avoid defiant gestures as he pushed for officially-recognized partition of the city as the best solution.
Much, of course, has happened since 1950. The 1967 Six-Day War and the expulsion of Jordanian troops brought Israeli control of the eastern portions of Jerusalem including the Jewish sites, particularly Mount Scopus and the Western Wall. The Israeli government in 1980 declared united Jerusalem its capital, a step rejected by the UN Security Council. U.S. presidents have also visited Jerusalem, Jimmy Carter addressing the Knesset in 1979 as part of his comprehensive peace initiative, and President Trump visited the Western Wall, a step that itself broke diplomatic tradition. The quest for a lasting peace continues, although hopes seem dim.
But the U.S. embassy remains, for the moment anyway, in Tel Aviv as an example of judicious restraint. For the past seven decades, U.S. and Israeli officials have never had difficulty communicating between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, cities that lie just 30 miles apart. Moving the U.S. Embassy, symbolically or in fact, might satisfy some Israelis but at the cost of alienating other countries, weakening Israel’s position at the UN, and possibly triggering additional violence. The diplomatic dynamics of the mid-20th century still reverberate today.
Norman J.W. Goda of the University of Florida and Richard Breitman of American University are editors of Envoy to the Promised Land: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1948-1951.
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