Middle East History: It Happened in January; Congress Has Been Irresponsible on the Issue of Jerusalem

By Neff, Donald | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Middle East History: It Happened in January; Congress Has Been Irresponsible on the Issue of Jerusalem


Neff, Donald, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Middle East History: It Happened in January; Congress Has Been Irresponsible on the Issue of Jerusalem

It was nine years ago, on Jan. 18, 1989, that U.S. Ambassador to Israel William Brown and Israeli Lands Authority Deputy Director Moshe Gatt signed an international executive agreement providing for the construction of two new U.S. diplomatic facilities in Israel, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Jerusalem. Signing of the "Land Lease and Purchase Agreement" occurred on the last full day in power of Ronald Reagan, the most pro-Israel U.S. president before Bill Clinton.

Although the agreement was kept extremely quiet and almost no publicity resulted from the signing, critics later claimed that its effect could result in the eventual moving of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by mid-1999 despite fierce opposition from the Islamic world and America's own long-held opposition to such a move.(1)

The agreement was based on the "Helms Amendment," named after Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Never one to be upstaged in his public support of Israel ever since Israel's supporters poured huge amounts of money into his difficult 1984 campaign for re-election (he was able to outspend his opponent almost two to one), Helms added his amendment on Oct. 1, 1988, to the Department of State Appropriations Act. It called for the construction of two separate diplomatic facilities in Israel, one in Tel Aviv and one in Jerusalem "or the West Bank," a clear effort to satisfy Israel's desire to move the embassy to Jerusalem as an effort to legitimize its claim to the city.(2)

The amendment said that each facility should be able to serve as an embassy or consulate but "shall not be denominated as the United States Embassy or Consulate until after construction of both facilities has begun, and construction of one facility has been completed, or is near completion...." Critics claimed that the purpose of this language was to inject the issue into later presidential campaigns when candidates could be placed under pressure to approve the move.(3)

In his remarks on the Senate floor, Helms made clear the purpose of his amendment was to bring about the move of the embassy to Jerusalem. He said: "Many of us here in the Senate -- I venture to say most of us here -- believe that Israel has a right to choose its own capital, and that the United States should locate its Embassy accordingly."(4)

Professor of International Law James A. Boyle of the University of Illinois College of Law advised on July 21, 1989, in a letter to Rep. Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, that the signing of the agreement could "only be interpreted as a last-minute attempt by the Reagan administration to lock its successors into a policy of moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by a date-certain (i.e., July 1996)."

Boyle advised that the agreement "raises serious problems under international law, which in turn create a severe threat to the further development of the Middle East peace process that the Bush Administration is publicly committed to. For this reason, the United States government should not proceed with the implementation of this agreement, and the United States Congress must not provide any funding for the implementation of this agreement."

In his supporting arguments, Boyle listed among other objections the inapplicability of Israeli domestic law to Jerusalem, the applicability of international laws of belligerent occupation to Jerusalem, and the illegality of expropriating Waqf (Muslim communal) property in Jerusalem.

Despite such warnings, the Congress has consistently supported Israel's effort to claim all of Jerusalem as its capital. Yet since Israel's establishment, every administration, whether Democrat or Republican, has opposed moving the embassy to Jerusalem. The reasons were primarily legal as cited by Professor Boyle, mainly that Israel could not claim as its capital territory occupied by force. …

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