Israel’s 1980 Law Declaring Jerusalem the Capital
On July 30, 1980, the Israeli Knesset, or Parliament, passed a law declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel, although Israel had informally considered Jerusalem the capital since 1967, when it invaded and occupied East Jerusalem (along with the West Bank, the Sinai and the Golan Heights). The bill of July 1980, in effect, formalized the annexation of Arab East Jerusalem.
The Work of a Fanatic
The bill, introduced the previous May by ultra-nationalist Knesset member Geula Cohen, who opposed the peace treaty with Egypt, passed 69-15, with three abstentions. Justifying the law, Cohen had said, referring to the regions in the West Bank by their biblical Jewish names: “I don’t want peace if I cannot have Judea and Samaria. The Jews did not come back to Israel to be safe but to build a nation on the lands given to us by the Bible.”
Israel’s opposition Labor Party criticized the law as ill-advised. Headlining it “Capital Folly in Jerusalem,” The New York Times editorialized on Aug. 3 that “the sponsor of Israel’s gratuitous and provocative new law affirming Jerusalem as its capital is a fanatic. Her motives are clear, and her triumph in this case betrays the government’s weakness and bankruptcy. […] Mr. Begin’s plan to move the office to East Jerusalem flaunts the new law. With his political days numbered, he aims thus to emulate the move by Prime Minister Ben Gurion into West Jerusalem at Israel’s birth. But Israel then needed a beachhead for survival; today it has the strength to offer reconciliation.”
The American Reaction
The United States at the time was in the midst of a presidential election, with President Jimmy Carter challenged by the eventual winner, Ronald Reagan. Israel was also formalizing its recently signed peace treaty with Egypt, which Carter had mediated. The Jerusalem law risked breaking down the Camp David agreement.
On Aug. 13, 1980, President Carter stated: “It has been our policy that Israel should remain forever undivided with free access to the holy places for people of all faiths. It has been and it must remain our policy that the ultimate status of Jerusalem should be a matter of negotiations between the parties.” To U.S. policy, the commitment to an undivided Israel was also a commitment to United Nations resolutions calling for the city’s unification in recognition of its “special status” as a holy city for Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
United Nations Condemnation
The United Nations’ condemnation of Israel’s new law was swift. On Aug. 20, 1980, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 478, affirming that “enactment of the ‘basic law’ by Israel constitutes a violation of international law,” and determining that “all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying Power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and in particular the recent ‘basic law’ on Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith.” The resolution also concluded that “this action constitutes a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
The resolution also called on any nation with an embassy in Jerusalem to withdraw it from there. Within days, the Netherlands, considered to be Israel’s best friend in Europe at the time, followed Haiti, Venezuela, Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador out of Jerusalem. A few other countries kept their embassies there for a while (Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Re3public, Guatemala and Panama), but eventually those relocated as well.
Today, not a single nation has its embassy in Jerusalem. The majority are in Tel Aviv. A few are in a Jerusalem suburb.
The United States Embassy in Israel, like the overwhelming majority of other nations’ embassies, is located in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city by size and population. (Jerusalem would be larger on both counts only if Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel occupies illegally, is included.) The United States has never had its Embassy in Jerusalem because Jerusalem has never been the internationally recognized capital of Israel.
For more details on the issue of the American embassy in Israel, see “Should the American Embassy be in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?”