There has recently been a lot of controversy regarding President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. However it seems odd to me that this is a point of contention in the first place, as the physical reality is that Israel does in fact controls all of Jerusalem and their government really does seat there. To quote the White House:

Today, Jerusalem is the seat of the modern Israeli government. It is the home of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as well as the Israeli Supreme Court. It is the location of the official residence of the Prime Minister and the President. It is the headquarters of many government ministries.

So what's the big deal about recognizing that the sky is blue and the grass is green? Shouldn't Donald Trump be praised for finally stating the obvious?

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    It's a shame this question focus on a specific case (Jerusalem recognition) rather an the General case - as for instance the same question applies to many cases, especially the annexation of Crimea by Russia or the partition of Cyprus. – Bregalad Dec 8 '17 at 11:05
  • @Bregalas feel free to edit it – JonathanReez Dec 8 '17 at 12:07
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    The question makes little sense. Countries physically invade each other all the time. That is reality. Doesn't make it "right". – user1530 Dec 8 '17 at 15:47

International law largely forbids wars of conquest or unilateral secessions. There is a lot of fudging and hypocrisy in this but no matter where you stand, you will find some territories effectively controlled by a state (or their proxy) in a way that is disapproved by other states. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, Kosovo, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Crimea are recent examples. There are many differences between these quasi-states and Israel but the simple fact is that states do not simply accept the status quo based on the “physical reality” on the ground. On the flip side, if a state already controls an area, what's the point of formally “recognising” it? Clearly, recognition is not about this at all.

In that particular case however, it's not clear that this “recognition” is actually going to change much. The most serious reasons not to do it is safeguarding the peace process by leaving the final status of the city open to negotiation and protecting the US reputation as a neutral broker in this part of the world. But it does not seem like there is much of a peace process left and the US lost any pretence of neutrality a long time ago. It's also hard to see how this helps Israel in any way and does not account for another physical reality (the multiple cultural and political allegiances of the people actually living in the city) but those do not appear to be important considerations in this decision…

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    But Israel was attacked first. You should also cite some sources. – user9790 Jul 15 '18 at 20:54
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    @KDog Uh, wasn't British Palestine attacked first? – Thorsten S. Jul 30 '18 at 19:20
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    @ThorstenS. No, at the start of Israel's existence, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria all attacked Israel unprovoked. – user9790 Jul 30 '18 at 20:59
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    @KDog I am talking about British palestine which was attacked by zionist terror groups before Israel. I find the logic "I was attacked, therefore my decisions are right and the attacker is wrong" a bit strange if the existence of Israel is based on terror groups who wanted to expel the Brits and did not acknowledge British Palestine in the first place. The Ottoman Empire who had Palestine before was attacked by the Brits etc. etc. etc. So who was right and who was wrong? The Ottomans? The Brits? The Jews? All of them? – Thorsten S. Jul 30 '18 at 21:50
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    @KDog According to your logic, Native Americans should be recognised as the only owners of the Americas, and be given full control, including the right to expel everyone else. Do you really mean it? – michau Sep 13 '19 at 11:45

Israel gained control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the six day war of 1967. This is why they achieved de facto control of Jerusalem. However, since WWII, conquest has largely come into disfavor among the international community as a form of territorial acquisition and establishment of political authority.

If we follow the idea of de facto control of a territory as establishing legitimate political authority, we would have to accept Chinese claims over the South China Sea, or Russian claims over Crimea and their actions in Ukraine, or even (for a while at least) the claims of the Islamic State since they held territory through conquest.

Whether Jerusalem is the capital of Israel should be a question that is settled diplomatically. Jerusalem is the capital if the rest of the world recognizes it as such, having the recognition arrive just because their claim by conquest would lead to absurd outcomes.

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    A vast majority of the countries not accepting Israel's control happen to accept Chinese control over Tibet; Russia's control over 4 Japanese Islands and Königsberg (aka Kaliningrad); and Kosovo's control over Serbian territory. All of these were acquired by conquest since WWII. So, this seems like complete BS reason if given by same said countries. Including the ones who did the conquering. – user4012 Dec 8 '17 at 4:04
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    @user4012 I said its come under disfavor, not that territorial conquest is now some alien concept no one tries to execute, otherwise I wouldn't have provided so many recent examples. And Jerusalem and the West Bank is distinct from at least the China and Tibet example. China has already successfully established a majority ethnic Han population in Tibet; a "free Tibet" as defined by an ethnically Tibetan population ruling Tibet is already pretty much impossible. It's why Israeli settlements in the West Bank are so heavily criticized, it's seen as attempting to make the occupation permanent. – Teleka Dec 8 '17 at 4:27
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    @user4012 It's probably best to look at Taiwan as an analogy since the ROC was established by conquest and its current diplomatic status with the international community is fairly complicated because of various political realities. The US for example, doesn't currently recognize the ROC. If it does, that would be a political statement (much like recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital), rather than a statement of fact, which is that the ROC has controlled Taiwan for many decades and now even enjoys the support of their population. – Teleka Dec 8 '17 at 4:37
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    @user4012 At least for Königsberg/Kaliningrad, there has been a final settlement due to the 4+2 treaty where Germany refrains from any territorial claims concerning the lost territories after WWII. So there has been a diplomatic solution settling the questions. This is exactly what is also desired concerning Jerusalem by the UN: a settlement that defines the state of Jerusalem in the context of a two-state-solution. – Thern Dec 8 '17 at 8:33
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    @JonathanReez Theoretically this might be possible, but why recognize it then in the first place? If you would do everything possible to bring Crimea back to the Ukraine, why not start by not accepting and not recognizing the Russian annexion? – Thern Dec 8 '17 at 10:34

It is not about physical realities, but about political questions. In the frame of a possible two-state solution, the west of Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel and the east of Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine.

Recognizing the complete Jerusalem as the capital of Israel sends the political message that the two-state solution is seen as failed by the USA, without suggesting an alternative.

For example, the German administration has stated via Twitter that "the Bundesregierung does not support this position because the status of Jerusalem has to be settled in the frame of a two-state solution".

It is the diplomatic signal that is sent, that is stirring up emotion. Especially in combination of a complete lack of alternative ideas, because what else is there apart from a two-state solution?

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    Part of the problem is that settlement "in the frame of a two-state solution" seems to be a practical impossibility. – jamesqf Dec 8 '17 at 21:38
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    @jamesqf That strongly depends on the will of both sides to find such an agreement. Lately, no side showed much interest in such a solution, that is right, but then no side showed much interest in any solution. However, times may change, they were already different 25 years ago, they can be different again in the future. Eliminating possibilities because they are currently unreachable is not a sound diplomatic strategy, especially if one presents no alternative. Diplomacy must be thought in decades, not in terms of current events. – Thern Dec 8 '17 at 22:47
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    Well, it's rather hard to reach a mutually agreeable solution when a significant portion of one side insists that the only acceptable solution is the extermination of the other side, and that side is not really interested in being exterminated. Nor were things much different 25 years ago, or 50. – jamesqf Dec 9 '17 at 3:16
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    @jamesqf That is massively oversimplified, and I think there will be no common ground of discussion here. – Thern Dec 9 '17 at 12:10
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    @Rekesoft This is exactly the type of discussion that leads to nowhere, so please stop. It is offtopic anyway, and the limited space for comments will not be enough to bring sufficiently well-founded arguments. – Thern Dec 11 '17 at 10:05

Regarding your title question, Israel itself has avoided making any formal legal claim to sovereignty over the occupied territories. If they did, it would amount to annexation, since they have long had de facto sovereignty. They would then have a much larger non-Jewish population. As I understand it, most of the non-Jewish population of Israel has citizenship rights, but this is not the case in annexed Golan and East Jerusalem. By not formally annexing the other occupied territories, they avoid the issue of citizenship rights.

If you Google for Israel demographic threat you will find many references to this concern.

For example:

Lapid warned that zealots on both the left and the right had delusions that a bi-national state could emerge in the Holy Land, but that Israel could not accept a situation in which millions of Palestinians demand the right to vote for the Knesset.
"The options we will have is to refuse, and stop being a democracy, or to agree, and stop being a Jewish state," he warned. "These are two bad options. These are two options that need to be prevented. The state of Israel does not need to a rule another nation or another people. This is against Jewish morals. This is against the core idea of building here an exemplary society."

The US does not recognise Chinese sovereignty in Tibet because it doesn't approve of it. Recognising this annexation without citizenship rights for the residents means the US approves of it and encourages further such actions by the State of the Jewish People.

  • Israel did make the formal legal claim to East Jerusalem in 1980, and its Arab residents are entitled to citizenship, which most of them reject (unlike the Golan, whose Druze residents are citizens). Avoiding demographic issues by not annexing is relevant to the west bank, not to Jerusalem. – ugoren Jul 15 '18 at 12:11
  • @ugoren That's what I meant, I have clarified. They have an "option to apply". Israel almost entirely halts citizenship approvals for East Jerusalemites. "East Jerusalemites, like all permanent residents seeking Israeli citizenship, must give up any other citizenships, passports, or residency statuses — like a US green card — on gaining Israeli citizenship. (Different rules apply to those seeking citizenship under the Law of Return, who may retain foreign passports.)" – Keith McClary Jul 16 '18 at 14:38
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    Reasons for downvotes and deletion votes? – Keith McClary Jul 30 '18 at 16:41
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    You don't answer the question. It's about foreign countries' recognition of the situation, but you write about Israeli actions and motivation. It's about Jerusalem, and you write about not annexing the west bank, while Jerusalem was annexed. – ugoren Jul 31 '18 at 8:17
  • @ugoren I've made that explicit. – Keith McClary Aug 1 '18 at 3:14

If I were teaching or tutoring and someone asked this question, my first response would be to ask:

Is control of a territory a physical reality?

Control is a social matter. Who controls what is often times a messy affair, and different people in the same area can disagree about who is in control. This is unlike physical properties such as temperature or elevation, which are objective and can be directly measured.

Additionally, it's worth noting that for the last several centuries at least the dominant view in political theory is the expectation of legitimacy of governments. That's just to say that control of a territory isn't the most important thing, a government must also be somehow justified in ruling a place. Democracies establish this through voting, but there are other claims to legitimacy.


What is the point of countries not recognizing the physical reality of who controls a certain territory?

I'll tackle another example, and one where the sky wasn't as blue as pretended to stay in OP's metaphor: (West)Germany before reunification.

Before reunification in 1990, the (West-) German Grundgesetz (≈constitution) considered Germany to be in the boundaries of 1937. One important consequence of this was that any GDR citizen who fled to the West was immediately and seamlessly considered a full (West-) German citizen, no need to apply for asylum or citizenship.

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    Not only GDR citizens, but also polish citizens with german etnicity. People in my remote family have done exactly that. – Bregalad Sep 13 '19 at 12:46

One state's refusal to recognize a second state's de facto control of territory has several implications:

  1. If the first state claims the territory, it reserves the right to reconquer the territory. If it does go to war to reconquer the territory, it might conquer more than just the disputed territory.
  2. If the first state claims the territory, it can appeal to international arbitration to try to regain the territory (and perhaps gain foreign assistance in reconquering the territory).
  3. If the first state does not claim the territory, it implies a willingness to recognize a different power's claim to the territory -- even if that other alleged power's existence is more tenuous than would usually be needed to have de facto control of the territory.
  4. If the first state does not claim the territory, it implies a willingness to help another power conquer the territory.
  5. The first state might not support its citizens or firms that go to the territory, and get in trouble there.
  6. All property rights (and other economic activity) in the disputed territory are subject to doubt as to whether the territory's governance situation will continue as it is.

Point 3 led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Until 1986, most politically active people in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were not aware that the U.S. did not recognize the Soviet annexation of those three countries. When they became aware of it (in a rather spectacular fashion), they were inspired to organize independence movements that eventually succeeded. Because the Soviet constitution had a provision allowing SSRs to secede, but that provision was short on details and did not distinguish between the Baltic SSRs and the other SSRs, other SSRs were also inspired to secede.

Points 1 and 4 can make the residents of the disputed territory fearful of a future war.

Points 5 and 6 make it much more difficult to do business in the disputed territory, which tends to impoverish the disputed territory.

Further reading:

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