Monday, July 13, 2015

13 July 1953, Creating Facts: The Israeli Foreign Ministry Moves to Jerusalem



In July 1953 the Israeli Foreign Ministry was about to move its offices to Jerusalem. Israel's leaders knew that this was a controversial move, since, on 9  December 1949, the UN General Assembly had passed Resolution 194 on the internationalization of Jerusalem under UN control. In 1947 Israel had accepted internationalization of Jerusalem as part of the Partition Plan. But after the Arabs rejected the plan and tried to prevent its implementation by force, Israel no longer felt bound by it.

On 5 December 1949 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared in the Knesset that Jewish Jerusalem was an organic and inseparable part of the State of Israel.  At that time Israel agreed to international supervision of the Holy Places, most of which were in any case under Jordanian rule.  We've already shown here the draft of his statement Ben-Gurion  sent to Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, in which he threatened that Israel would leave the UN if the resolution was adopted.   
After the resolution passed,  despite opposition from Britain and the US, Ben-Gurion announced the transfer of the Knesset and the government ministries to Jerusalem.  Sharett  opposed the announcement and believed that there was no real danger of steps to carry out internationalization. He even threatened to resign  – see his reaction here.


Ben-Gurion, Sharett and Minister Moshe Shapira
 in the first Knesset building
in Jerusalem (Frumin House), 1952
Photograph: Wikimedia
The Knesset and the Prime Minister's Office were transferred to Jerusalem immediately, but other government offices followed gradually. A complex of one storey bungalows in the Givat Ram area of Jerusalem was built to house the Foreign Ministry. Meanwhile Sharett ran the office from the Kirya government buildings in Tel Aviv. In May 1952 the move was announced, to be carried out in the summer of 1953. 

In May 1953 the new US Secretary of State J.F. Dulles visited Israel as part of a tour of the Middle East. He hoped to organize an anti-Soviet defence organization similar to NATO but found little enthusiasm among the Arab states. During the trip he met Sharett, and, according to a letter sent to the secretary in July, the foreign minister told Dulles about the imminent move to Jerusalem, and the secretary did not protest. He asked that the move not take place while he was in the area, and suggested that Sharett repeat previous statements on Israel's attitude to the Holy Places. Sharett gave a statement in the Knesset recognizing Israel's obligations to protect the Christian Holy Places under its control.
Nuns crossing into Jordan at the Mandelbaum Gate
 Photograph: Fritz Cohen, Government Press Office

On his return to the US, Dulles gave a radio speech on his tour. He said that the new Republican Administration should act to allay the fears of the Arabs and to restore the reputation of the US, which they believed was giving one sided support to Israel.  He described his feelings on seeing Jerusalem, which was split into armed camps, but was above all a Holy Place. Dulles, son of a Presbyterian minister, said that the link to Jerusalem felt by religious groups all over the world was a claim preceding the political claims of Israel and Jordan. Headlines in the Israeli press claimed that he had supported the internationalization of the city, the return of some of the Arab refugees and the strengthening of the Arab League.
On June 7 the government discussed the speech. In Sharett's  references to Jerusalem (pp. 5-9) he emphasized that there was no change in US policy. Israel could gain if the Holy Places were put under international control, as it might get access to the Western Wall and to Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem. He warned his colleagues against the illusion that unilateral action by Israel, and faits accomplis such as moving the government offices, could actually solve the problem of Jerusalem.  The rest of the world, and especially the Catholic church, which had much influence in France and Latin America, did not accept Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The unclear situation could be exploited by the Arabs, even though they cared for the Holy Places "as the snows of yesteryear'.  Ben-Gurion also commented on Dulles' speech but his comments centered on other issues.

In the guidelines he sent Israel's diplomatic representatives to explain the coming move, Sharett asked them to emphasize the practical reasons involved. He described at length the difficulties suffered by the Ministry staff, and especially the minister himself, in commuting between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the harmful effects of their remoteness from the centre of decision making. 

The Foreign Ministry moves in, 9 July 1953.
 Photograph: Yehuda Eisenstark , Israel State Archives
 Sharett knew that the embassies would not leave Tel Aviv but did not expect any particular problem with official visits to the Ministry in Jerusalem. Arab protests were loud, as can be seen below.

 The American reaction was  also harsh, and together with  other Western countries, they announced that they would not conduct any official business in Jerusalem, even if invited by the minister. Sharett wrote to Dulles, arguing that plenty of time had been given to the UN to deal with the Jerusalem issue in a more realistic way, but it had not done so. Before the move the US ambassador and their staff had had no difficulty in visiting government offices in Jerusalem. He added that no change in Jerusalem's status was involved. "New Jerusalem has in any case and to all practical purposes been our capital since 1949, and would have continued to be our capital, with the Foreign Ministry or without it." 

Gradually the ban was relaxed, and on Independence Day, 1954, most of the diplomatic corps attended the president's reception in Jerusalem. 

Most diplomatic representations in Israel remain in the Tel Aviv area, but today all official visits by heads of state are received at the Foreign Ministry . The ministry remained in the hut complex for 50 years, until an impressive new building  was opened in 2003 near the Supreme Court in Givat Ram.  

The Foreign Ministry today
Photographs: The Israeli Association for Diplomacy



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