Have you noticed?
Some journalists, commentators and academics have a peculiar habit. When they wish to refer to the Israeli government, they do so by employing the term “Tel Aviv.”
It is quite common to refer to the capital of a country as a synonym for its government. Thus, rather than say, for instance, the Russian government, a journalist or commentator or academic might refer to “Moscow”; instead of writing the Obama administration, the term “Washington” would be mentioned.
There is, though, a single exception to this rule, a unique case that stands out: Israel and the Israeli government.
More often than not one can read reports about Israel, or assessments about its policies, which resort to the city of Tel Aviv as a synonym for the Israeli government.
What is so singular about this is that Tel Aviv is not the capital of Israel. It is, certainly, Israel’s most important commercial city, akin to New York in the United States. However, one would never see a newspaper article or hear a radio report in which New York is used as a parallel term to the government of the United States.
São Paulo is the most important commercial city in Brazil. Still, it is never referred to as a synonym for the government of the country. Rather, “Brasilia,” its capital, is mentioned in that context.
So, why Tel Aviv?
The answer is simple: because Jerusalem is not recognized by most countries as the capital of Israel. Indeed, Jerusalem is referred to, on occasion, as the “self-declared capital of Israel.”
Well, that is true. But then, aren’t all capitals “self-declared?”
What is the difference between Israel’s case and the rest?
The answer, yet again, is simple: Jerusalem has never been recognized as Israel’s capital by the international community.
Well, because according to the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which called for the establishment in Mandatory Palestine of a Jewish and an Arab state, Jerusalem should not have been part of the Jewish state, but rather a separate international enclave.
True. However, there are other towns that were not supposed to be part of the Jewish state, according to the 1947 UN Partition Plan, such as Jaffa and Acre, which are nevertheless regarded as part of the sovereign territory of Israel by the world community.
What is the difference, then, between Jerusalem and Jaffa and Acre?
The Six-Day War of June 1967. There is an apparent international consensus that Israel’s borders that preceded that war should be recognized as the legitimate boundaries of the state; any recognition of territory held by Israel beyond those limits ought to be dependent on an agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Well, even according to that scenario, West Jerusalem should be recognized by the international community as being an integral part of Israel’s sovereign territory, as that area of the city is well within the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders.
Considering the seemingly wide international consensus as regards the legitimacy of Israel’s boundaries that preceded the Six-Day War, which include West Jerusalem within them, what is the problem of referring at least to that area of the city as being part of Israel? Indeed, what is the problem of recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
Of course, the reason why those journalists, commentators and academics keep referring to Tel Aviv as a synonym for Israel’s government may have precious little to do with international law or legitimacy, let alone pure logic. It is rather interesting to note that usually the term Tel Aviv is used in this context by people who hold, to begin with, a lukewarm, if not hostile, attitude toward Israel.
If one wants to be arbitrary rather than logical, why not mention other cities in Israel instead of Jerusalem? Why Tel Aviv? What about Haifa or Beer Sheva?
This cynical query apart, the principal question remains open: Why does the international community see West Jerusalem as being part of Israel’s legitimate borders and yet acts as though it doesn’t?
Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum lectures at the Diplomacy Program of Tel Aviv University. His articles have appeared in various newspapers and journals. He holds a doctorate from Oxford University and a masters’ degree from Cambridge University.