(CNSNews.com) – The Obama White House, in removing one word from a photo caption on its Web site this week, has drawn fresh attention to two consecutive administrations’ tussles with Congress over whether American citizens born in Jerusalem should have the word “Israel” appear on their U.S. passports.
The move comes as the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments in the fall in a case to determine whether the executive or legislative branch is empowered to decide the matter.
A 2002 law directed the secretary of state to allow the word “Israel” to appear on passports of those Jerusalem-born citizens who request it, but President Bush in a “signing statement” overrode the requirement, arguing that it “impermissibly interferes with the president’s constitutional authority to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs.”
Jerusalem is one of the most intractable issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Obama State Department, like its predecessors, does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of the city and says its future status remains to be determined in a negotiated peace settlement.
On Tuesday, the State Department issued a brief statement reiterating government policy that “U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem may not have ‘Israel’ listed in their passports as their place of birth.”
That afternoon, Weekly Standard deputy online editor Daniel Halper posted a photograph from the White House Web site depicting a 2010 meeting between Vice President Joseph Biden and Israeli President Shimon Peres. The caption said the encounter took place in “Jerusalem, Israel.”
Some two hours later, Halper noted that the caption had been edited to remove the word “Israel.”
“The point of posting the photo was to show that, although the State Department refuses to say that Jerusalem is in Israel, even the White House website acknowledges this elementary truth,” he wrote.
Some argue that identifying Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is simply a reflection of reality. The White House scrub of the Biden-Peres caption appears to have overlooked another page on the site – a biography of a trainee foreign service officer whose “first foreign service assignment will be in Jerusalem, Israel beginning August 2011.”
Although the U.S. consulate-general in Jerusalem states its mailing address to be, “P.O. Box 290, Jerusalem 91002” – with no country given – other official government documents, such as an application for social security bank deposits and a guidebook for grant applications (pg. 37), do state “Jerusalem, Israel” in giving the mission’s address.
Those supporting the intent of the 2002 law contend that many of the around 50,000 American citizens born in Jerusalem are proud of the fact they were born in Israel and would like that reflected on their passports – a step they say would have no foreign policy significance whatsoever.
The State Department, on the other hand, has argued for years that doing so would be interpreted as a shift in the government’s position on the city’s status, and undermine the U.S. role as a mediator in the dispute.
To back this assertion, administration lawyers have drawn attention to the angry reactions of Palestinians and others to the passage of the 2002 law, and say this is a reflection of the type of response that an actual change in policy would incur.
The State Department has not been as anxious about China’s sensitivity regarding Taiwan, an independent nation regarded by Beijing as a renegade province and long seen as the likeliest trigger for any potential military showdown between the U.S. and China.
Up until 1994, passports of Taiwan-born American citizens listed “China” as their place of birth.
In line with a 1994 law, the policy changed. The same State Department manual that lays down policy on specifying “Jerusalem” – no country – on passports of citizens born there, explains that those born in Taiwan may request that either “Taiwan” or “China” appear on their passports.
“The United States does not officially recognize Taiwan as a ‘state’ or ‘country,’ although passport issuing officers may enter ‘Taiwan’ as a place of birth,” the manual states.
China at the time protested the law change, calling it trouble-making by “a handful of people who vainly attempt to split China” and warning that Taiwan-born Americans wanting to visit mainland China would have to ensure that their passports gave “China” as place of birth. Similar warnings were given to Taiwan-born Canadian citizens whose passport gave “Taiwan” as place of birth, with Chinese missions in Canada refusing to issue visas. Nonetheless the U.S. passport policy stands.
The State Department manual also appears to “take sides” in other disputed instances. A citizen born in the Bethlehem or Hebron, for example, has “West Bank” as place of birth on his or her passport, despite the fact that for many Israelis, the area known historically as Judea-Samaria is and should remain part of Israel.
Similarly, those born on the Golan Heights have “Syria” written in their passports, although the area has been under Israeli control since 1967 and was formally annexed in 1981. The strategic ridge fell within the borders of independent Syria for 23 years prior to 1967, before which it was part of a French mandate and the Ottoman Empire.
‘Vastly underestimating the political implications’
The case before the Supreme Court, Zivotofsky v. Secretary of State, was brought on behalf of a young American born in Jerusalem, whose parents sought in vain to have “Israel” given as place of birth on his passport.
Introducing his case before the Supreme Court last month, attorney for the plaintiff Nathan Lewin disputed the notion that U.S. foreign policy was on the line.
“Courts below and this Court have been intimidatingly told that the judiciary is being asked in this case to determine the ‘status of Jerusalem’ – ‘one of the most sensitive and long-standing disputes in the Arab-Israeli conflict,’” Lewin said. “But the government will surely acknowledge that Jerusalem’s ‘status’ for American foreign-policy purposes is not affected by whether Jerusalem-born citizens are allowed to record ‘Israel’ as their place of birth.”
When the case was before the D.C. District Court back in Dec. 2006, State Department lawyers said that the plaintiff “vastly understates the political implications of a change in U.S. policy regarding the birthplace of passport applicants born in Jerusalem.”
“What matters most is not what any individual U.S. passport says per se – which may or may not become generally known – but the overall policy and practice of the United States regarding the passports of persons born in Jerusalem – any change of which would quickly become widely known.”
They dismissed as irrelevant the fact that some references to “Jerusalem, Israel” may be found here or there in U.S. government material.
“[A]ny isolated, erroneous references to ‘Jerusalem, Israel’ that plaintiff might be able to find on Department of State Internet pages or that might appear in scattered individual passports or Consular Reports of Birth Abroad – references that plaintiff himself admits are ‘mistaken’ – do not constitute a change in policy and do not, therefore, damage the interests of the United States abroad,” the court was told.