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Capital Offense: International Norms on Jerusalem are a Mess

In recent weeks the topic of recognizing Israel’s capital in Jerusalem and the question of why nearly all embassies are located in Tel Aviv was big news in the UK and Australia. On cue, a broad range of foreign policy grandees and experts intoned about the importance of not recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and most definitely not placing embassies there.

This, after all, has been the consensus position since the very first days after Israel’s establishment as an independent state in 1948. And it is nearly always expressed in very pious terms referencing “international law.” This is peculiar, since there is no relevant international law to be applied to the recognition of another state’s capital city.

There isn’t some special procedure a city has to go through for “approval.” In fact, countries do not customarily “recognize” each other’s capitals. When two states establish diplomatic relations, embassies are typically placed in whatever city the host country designates as its capital. When a state, for whatever reason, moves its capital city, embassies follow without any fuss. This has even been true in cities divided by war such as East Berlin and Nicosia.

A city’s municipal boundaries can change without affecting in one way or another the “recognition” of a capital city. Again, recognizing a city as a capital is not actually a “thing,” nor is using the name of another city as a metonymy for a country’s diplomatic moves (“Tel Aviv hopes to expand its relations in the Gulf…”), something that does not happen with any other country aside from Israel.

What makes the situation with Jerusalem unique is not just the invention of an international “norm” which never existed and which applies nowhere except against Israel. That’s depressingly common. What makes Jerusalem unique is the invention of four different norms which never existed, which are applied nowhere except against Israel, and which blatantly contradict each other. The usual hypocrisy gets turbocharged into incoherence.

The putative norms are familiar enough:

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About Shany Mor
Shany Mor is an Adjunct Fellow at FDD, a Fellow at the Institute for Liberty & Responsibility at Reichman University and a former Director for Foreign Policy on Israel's National Security Council.
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