When President Obama gets to Jerusalem next week, one of the signals to listen for is an indication of what country he thinks he’s in. Normally this is clear when the President — any president — goes to the capital of a foreign country. He’s in whatever country the capital is capital of. But Mr. Obama has been refusing to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Not only that, but he has been refusing to admit that Jerusalem is even in Israel.
Mr. Obama feels so strongly about the matter that even as he travels to Jerusalem, his lawyers will be preparing to argue in court against a law that would require his state department to acknowledge that Jerusalem is in Israel. The case is in court because of a lawsuit brought by an American infant, Binyamin Zivotofsky, who was born in Jerusalem in 2002. Shortly before he was born, Congress passed a law giving any American born at Jerusalem the right to request and be issued a passport and other documents listing his birthplace as Israel.
Master Zivotofsky made just such a request. It was filed by his parents. The law under which it was filed had passed the Congress by a huge, bipartisan vote (the Senate was unanimous). But President Obama is refusing to obey the law. He is not alone in this. President George W. Bush before him had issued, when he signed the measure, a statement saying that it encroached on his powers. At first the courts ruled that it was a political matter. But eventually the Supreme Court stepped in and ordered a lower court to resolve the matter. The hearing there is about to begin.
The question before the court is not whether Jerusalem is or is not within Israel. It is rather whether the Congress of the United States has the authority under the Constitution to set the wording of American passports. The Supreme Court ruled that the courts had to decide after Justice Sotomoyar, in a canny question, asked what would happen if a number of countries threatened war over the wording of the passport. It turns out to be to the Congress and not to the president that the Constitution delegates the power to declare war in the first place.
Nor is the question of Jerusalem but theoretical. Mr. Obama is facing precisely a threat of war over his trip to Jerusalem. It involves the Temple Mount. No less a terrorist organization than Hamas has warned that if Mr. Obama sets foot on the Temple Mount, it will amount to a declaration of war. No one expects Mr. Obama to take a walk on the Temple Mount. But when Ariel Sharon, shortly before becoming prime minister, took a stroll on the Temple Mount, the Arabs reacted with the five years of riots and killings of Jews that became known as the Second Intifada.
We have always supported Mr. Sharon’s demarche, just as we do Master Zivotofsky’s. There has been a tendency throughout the so-called “peace process” to reserve Jerusalem for the final phase of negotiations. Our view is that it should be the first stage. Deferring Jerusalem until the end of things merely holds out hope for those who reject Israel altogether. This point will only be underlined if President Obama goes all the way to Jerusalem and fails to signal that he understands what country he’s in.