After the newborn state of Israel signed armistice agreements with the Arabs, the Israeli government began under-the-radar maneuvers to move its government ministries and national institutions to Jerusalem. On December 13, 1949, after the United Nations voted to internationalize the city, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, seeking to cement Jerusalem’s status as the eternal Jewish capital, announced he had secured Knesset approval to move the seat of Israeli government from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Just over a week later, on December 22, 1949, the government gradually began moving all its ministries to Jerusalem. By 1953, all government ministries, including the Supreme Court, had relocated to Jerusalem – except for the defense and foreign ministries.
After Jordan annexed East Jerusalem in April 1950, Israel’s need to fortify its Jerusalem policy became rooted in the public consciousness and the Foreign Ministry was severely criticized in some quarters for continuing to maintain its operations in Tel Aviv.
On January 30, 1951, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett announced that the delay of the transfer of the ministry was not a matter of principle but, rather, attributable to problems in meeting certain preconditions, including finding sufficient office space and residential housing in Jerusalem.
Sharett stated that the move would take place “at a time the government deems proper.” But when an April 1951 Knesset report showed no material progress due to “financial woes and ministerial priorities,” Ben-Gurion made transferring the Foreign Ministry to Jerusalem a top priority. Toward that end, the Knesset granted Sharett the authority to divert from Israel’s development budget all funds necessary to expedite the construction of the Foreign Ministry building in a “government precinct” at Givat Ram in Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, more delay ensued. First, a governmental austerity campaign left the development coffers all but empty. Second, a bitter battle ensued between Ben-Gurion, who supported the transfer as a way to force the world to recognize Jerusalem as an “organic and inseparable” part of Israel, and Sharett, who feared that such a move would antagonize the United States and incur serious international sanctions.
However, on May 4, 1952, Sharett essentially changed course. Apparently frustrated with the UN delay on “the Jerusalem question” and thinking he had American support, he announced there was no political bar to moving the ministry to Jerusalem and turned his efforts to the technical dynamics and operational details of facilitating the transfer. The government announced that accommodations were under construction in Jerusalem for the Foreign Ministry and that the move would take place as soon as the installations were completed.
Nonetheless, the battle between Ben-Gurion and Sharett continued, this time with respect to whether the move should be effected expeditiously, openly, and defiantly. Ben-Gurion argued that it was important that the world be made to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and that therefore the Foreign Ministry’s most important operations, particularly departments responsible for interacting with foreign diplomats, could and should be moved immediately. In fact, he maintained, there was no need to center other Foreign Ministry operations in Jerusalem at all.
Foreign Ministry ofﬁcials, however, continued to argue that at best, international relations would be adversely affected and that at worst, global dissatisfaction with Israel would turn it into a pariah nation. Indeed, even when Israel, still besieged by the lack of cooperation among the various political factions and bogged down in red tape – simply commenced investigating and planning various options, countries including the U.S., Britain, France, and Italy sent diplomatic representatives to Israel who, at a July 11, 1952 meeting with the Foreign Ministry, vociferously protested against any Israeli relocation plan.
Another committee was appointed to assess developments and recommend a course of action. Only weeks later, finding that leaving the Foreign Ministry in Tel Aviv would have a deleterious effect on the work of both the Ministry and the government, it suggested that Israel continue its work on moving the embassy, albeit less conspicuously.
On March 4, 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles ordered U.S. ambassador Monnett B. Davis to clearly communicate to Sharett President Eisenhower’s strong opposition to any Jerusalem transfer. Sharett responded that the president’s demand was “unrealistic” because the Israeli government had already approved the move and construction had commenced.
In April 1953, Sharett ﬂew to the United States to arrange a visit by Dulles to Israel, which took place on May 13, 1953 – the first such visit by an American secretary of state. The meeting with Ben-Gurion did not go well, however, and, after his return to America Dulles gave a televised speech in which he announced that “religious claims” to Jerusalem would trump Israel’s “political claims”; made clear that American Mideast policy would be neutral; and that such “neutrality” would include discussions with the Arabs regarding “Israeli expansionism.”
On July 12, 1953, in a lightning-quick operation, Israel’s Cabinet gave final approval for the transfer of the Foreign Ministry to Jerusalem. The official communique announcing the transfer, which was sent to all foreign missions in Israel, expressed the hope that eventually all foreign missions would establish their quarters in Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital; stated the conviction that no useful purpose would be served by the separation of the Ministry from the main body of the government; noted that there was no case in modern history where a Foreign Ministry had been separated from the other organs of a state; and reiterated the government’s readiness to accept and cooperate in the execution of any system of international supervision of the Holy Places which the United Nations might, at any time, find necessary and practicable.
The move began immediately, and the Ministry commenced full operations from Jerusalem only days later. Israel’s expectation that foreign consulates would follow standard diplomatic practice and relocate their embassies proved seriously misguided, as most nations, including the United States and Great Britain, announced they would not transfer their embassies to Jerusalem.
President Eisenhower was livid, and he was not reticent in letting Israel know it. The State Department declared that Israel had no right to declare Jerusalem its capital. A clearly insulted Dulles, who seemed to take Israel’s action as a personal affront, released the following official statement:
The United States regrets that the Israeli Government has seen fit to move its Foreign Office from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
We have made known our feelings on that subject to the Government of Israel on two prior occasions. It was done in July 1952 and again in March 1953, when our Ambassador, hearing rumors that this was in contemplation, called upon the Israeli Government and requested them not to transfer their Foreign Ministry to Jerusalem.
We feel that way because we believe that it would embarrass the United Nations, which has a primary responsibility for determining the future status of Jerusalem. You may recall that the presently standing U.N. resolution about Jerusalem contemplates that it should be to a large extent at least an international city. Also, we feel that this particular action by the Government of Israel at this particular time is inopportune in relation to the tensions which exist in the Near East, tensions which are rather extreme, and that this will add to rather than to relax any of these tensions.
The views that I express here are, we know, shared by a considerable number of other governments who have concern with the development of an atmosphere of peace and good will in that part of the world.
We have notified the Government of Israel that we do not intend to move our own Embassy to Jerusalem.
One person who apparently approved the transfer to Jerusalem was Israel’s chief rabbi, Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog. In the July 29, 1953 correspondence on his Foreign Ministry letterhead shown below, Sharett writes to thank Rav Herzog for his blessings to the Israeli government on its establishment of the Foreign Ministry office in Jerusalem:
I hereby transmit heartfelt thanks on your heartfelt blessings to the Government of Israel and to the undersigned on their meriting to raise the Foreign Office up to Israel’s capital [Jerusalem] and to settle there. May it come to pass that the faithful congratulations of those who already sent them to us be fulfilled.
Today, most foreign embassies remain in Tel Aviv, but visiting heads of state are received at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. President Trump promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem but has yet to do so.