Jerusalem: Why Israelis and Palestinians, Democrats and Republicans fight over it

By leaving support for Jerusalem as Israel's capital off its platform, the Democratic party sparked the latest fierce debate on the much-disputed city. What's the back story?

Jerusalem has been perhaps the world’s most coveted – and contested – piece of real estate for 3,000 years. In the latest battle, the city’s status has become a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans, who are vying for the support of American Jews, an influential and well-heeled bloc of voters. 

The latest furor erupted after the Democratic National Committee (DNC) released a draft copy of the party platform earlier this week that made no reference to Jerusalem as Israel's capital, which it included in its 2008 platform. The exclusion brings the party in line with White House policy on Jerusalem, but it still generated a firestorm, as well as confusion about whether it signals a policy change. 

“The Obama Administration has followed the same policy towards Jerusalem that previous US administrations of both parties have done since 1967,” a DNC statement said, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency. “As the White House said several months ago, the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- which we also said in the 2008 platform."

At the heart of the issue is whether the US should support Israel’s claim to the city as the “eternal and undivided capital” of the Jewish people. If the US did support that claim, it would almost certainly base the US Embassy in Jerusalem, as Mitt Romney promised to do on his recent campaign visit there. 

But every American administration since Israel’s founding has resisted taking that step, as have a majority of other countries.

Jewish claims to the city

Jerusalem, the seat of power for the biblical King David in roughly 1,000 BC, saw a succession of Jewish rulers until the Romans conquered the city in 70 AD and destroyed the Jewish temple.

When the United Nations approved a blueprint for a modern Israeli state in 1947, it partitioned historic Palestine between Jews and Arabs, with Jerusalem envisioned as part of an international enclave administered by trustees. Zionist leaders accepted the plan and declared independence in 1948, sparking a war with Arabs, who rejected the proposal. By the time the fighting stopped a year later, Jews were in control of west Jerusalem, while Jordan held the eastern part of the city, including the walled Old City.

When Arab aggression provoked another war in 1967, Israel fought back decisively, capturing all of east Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula in six days. Israeli leaders heralded Jerusalem as the “eternal and undivided capital” of the Jewish people. They redrew the city’s borders to include holy sites and strategic high ground but few Arabs, tripling the city’s territory and giving it a strong Jewish majority.

International opposition

In 1980, Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem with the passage of the “Basic law.” This elicited a strong reaction from the United Nations. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 478 with only one abstention (from the US), declaring the Basic Law “null and void” and calling on Israel to rescind it in the interest of making peace with Palestinians.

Palestinians also lay claim to Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The city is considered to be the third-holiest city in Islam, home to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque – located on the very site where the Jewish temple is believed to have been built – and long ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, its support for a growing number of Jewish neighborhoods in the predominantly Arab area, and plans for new Israeli-run archeological parks in some of the most sensitive areas of the city are all seen by the international community to be prejudicing any eventual peace agreement with the Palestinians. 

For this reason, most nations have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest and most prosperous city and far less controversial a location than Jerusalem. According to one tally, only two countries – Greece and Italy – have their embassies in Jerusalem proper. 

If Gov. Romney were to deliver on his campaign promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, that would make three.

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