Jerusalem: 'Eternal City,' Says Obama; 'Ancient Capital,' Says Netanyahu

By Patrick Goodenough | March 20, 2013 | 8:13 PM EDT

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at their joint news conference in Jerusalem, Israel on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP Photo)

( – Behind the bonhomie evident between President Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday, the Israeli leader delicately reminded his guest about Israel’s three millennia-old claim to the city he is visiting.

During a joint press conference at the prime minister’s residence, Netanyahu opened his remarks by telling Obama, “it’s a great pleasure to host you here in Jerusalem.”

He concluded them several minutes later with the words, “It’s a profound honor to host you, the leader of the free world, at this historic time in our ancient capital. Mr. President. Welcome to Israel, welcome to Jerusalem.”

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The warm greeting contained at its heart an issue that has long separated U.S. administrations and Israeli governments across the political spectrum, but which has been especially sensitive during this administration: the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem.

In a White House video prepared ahead of Obama’s visit to Israel, the Palestinian Authority (P.A.)-administered areas, and Jordan, a map illustrating the Israel portion of the trip clearly excludes not just the Golan Heights (claimed by Syria) and the entire West Bank (claimed by the Palestinians), but also all of Jerusalem.

Similarly, the official White House itinerary for the visit includes references to various parts of the program in “Tel Aviv, Israel,” “Ramallah, West Bank” and “Amman, Jordan.” But those parts of the itinerary taking place in the city where Obama will spend most of the short visit are located simply in “Jerusalem,” with no country given.

In a White House video about President Obama’s regional visit, a map illustrating the Israel portion of the trip excludes Jerusalem, as well the entire disputed West Bank and Golan Heights. (Image: White House video)

The policy applies even though Obama’s destinations in Jerusalem – the official residences of Netanyahu and of President Shimon Peres, the Israel Museum, Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Mount Herzl grave sites of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, and the Jerusalem Convention Center where he will deliver a keynote speech – are all located in parts of the city west of the 1949 armistice lines and so ostensibly not contested.

When he met with Peres earlier in the day, Obama described Jerusalem as “the Eternal City,” but not as Israel’s capital.

The 1993 Oslo peace accords said the future status of Jerusalem is subject to negotiations. But – although many Palestinians want all of the city, and indeed all of Israel, to fall within their future state – the P.A’s declared position over the two decades since Oslo has been to claim east Jerusalem as capital of that envisaged independent state.

For the U.S. government to continue to maintain that the status of east Jerusalem is to be negotiated, but recognize that west Jerusalem is located in Israel – and is its capital and the appropriate location for the U.S. Embassy in Israel – would not conflict with that stated P.A. demand.

Yet the administration’s studious avoidance of any reference to any of the city belonging to Israel has seen it scrub references to “Jerusalem, Israel” that occasionally are found on government websites.

Still, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the city last July she slipped up at least three times, making comments while in Jerusalem such as, “here in Israel.”

‘Not a settlement’

From the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 until 1967, Israel controlled western parts of Jerusalem while Jordan administered eastern parts (its occupation recognized only by Britain and Pakistan). During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured the eastern areas and declared the city “reunited.”

Israel says its claim to Jerusalem is goes back 3,000 years to the reign of Israel’s King David from the city, and that a yearning to return to the city sustained Jews through their long exile.

Jerusalem’s importance to Muslims is derived from the claim that Mohammed visited it on his winged steed during his “night journey” from Mecca to heaven.

Under bipartisan legislation passed in 1995, the U.S. was instructed to relocate its embassy from its present location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all exercised its inbuilt waiver authority to postpone the move.

While campaigning for the presidency, then-Senator Obama told a pro-Israel audience in 2008 that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided” – before rowing back the comment after P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas protested.

Support for Israel’s right to Jerusalem has been a feature of Republican and Democratic party platforms for decades, and was reaffirmed during their respective presidential campaigns by GOP candidates Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and John McCain, and by Democrats Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry.

One of the biggest difficulties in the troubled relationship between the leaders of the two allies during Obama’s first term arose from U.S. calls for Israel to stop construction work on settlements in disputed areas, including Jerusalem – prompting Netanyahu to tell Obama more than once that “Jerusalem is not a settlement.”

Those difficulties were far from sight during their joint appearance on Wednesday. Netanyahu warmly greeted “Barack” and Obama several times used the Israeli’s nickname, “Bibi.”

They also joshed about their wives and children, with Obama saying Netanyahu’s sons “are very good looking young men who clearly got their looks from their mother,” Netanyahu responding, “Well, I could say the same of your daughters,” and Obama acceding: “This is true. Our goal is to improve our gene pool by marrying women who are better than we are.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow