Could a Jerusalem boy’s passport impact US policy?

Ari Zivotofsky (right), stands with his nine-year-old son, Menachem, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, November 7, 2011. (Photo courtesy: AP)

United States Supreme Court Justices are expected to hand down a decision Monday on whether or not Israel could be listed as the birthplace of a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem, a judgment that may affect U.S. foreign policy with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The U.S. government has repeatedly blocked the enactment of a 2002 law allowing U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their birthplace, as doing so, Reuters news agency reported, would be tantamount to endorsing Israel’s claim over Jerusalem, contradicting America’s neutral stance towards the dispute over Jerusalem.

The decision will rule on whether the 2002 law is unconstitutional as the contention lies in a clash between the law and the president’s exclusive right to recognize a foreign nation.

Like most of the international community, the U.S. does not re recognize Israel’s claim over Jerusalem.

The legal controversy began in 2003 when the parents of a Jerusalem-born U.S. citizen Menachem Zivotofsky wanted his U.S. passport to state his was born in Israel.

Consequently, the Zivotofskys embarked on a decade-long legal battle on behalf of their son.

The nine justices will make the decision at a time of heightened tensions over the status of Jerusalem as clashes continue between Palestinians and Israelis in the contested holy city.

Tension escalated following an Israeli Jewish far right-wing activist called for an increased presence of Jewish worshippers in the al-Aqsa mosque, a move many Palestinians suspect aims to alter the status quo of the contested city.

The United States has been neutral on the question ever since Israel was founded in 1948.

“The last thing you want is the United States to come in from left field and undermine the credibility of the process,” Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Israel between 2001 a2005 and now teaches at Princeton University.

Israel calls Jerusalem its capital, but most countries, including the United States, do not recognise that claim and maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war, as capital of the state they aim to establish alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The State Department’s position is that a loss for the U.S. government would be perceived around the world as a reversal of American policy that could cause “irreversible damage” to the government’s power to influence the peace process, according to court papers. The administration, over the objections of members of Congress, has told the court that the president alone gets to make key foreign policy decisions.

If enforced, the law sends the message that “the United States has concluded that Israel exercises sovereignty over Jerusalem”, administration lawyers said in the court papers. The government currently requires that the passports of any US citizens born in Jerusalem list only the name of the city.

Even some of the Zivotofsky family’s supporters agree that a ruling in their favour could be read within the Muslim world as an endorsement of Israel’s claim for sovereignty over Jerusalem, although they say that would be an incorrect assumption.

“It’s hard to imagine Muslim countries doing anything but object strenuously,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, one of several US-based Jewish groups that have backed the Zivotofskys by filing friend-of-the-court briefs.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is the only pro-Palestinian group that filed a brief in support of the US government, saying the law discriminates against Americans of Palestinian heritage because it does not allow US citizens born in Jerusalem to list Palestine as their place of birth.

“The law benefits some Americans, but not others,” said Abed Ayoub, the group’s legal and policy director.

Other nations, including Israel, have not filed court papers on either side.

The Zivotofskys are represented by Washington-based lawyers Nathan Lewin and his daughter, Alyza. They came up with the legal basis for the challenge and said they have worked on the case without charge since 2002.

In an interview, Alyza Lewin downplayed the impact the case could have on foreign policy issues, framing it instead as a personal tale based on a family’s close connection with Israel.

At this point, Menachem Zivotofsky has lived with the case his whole life, Lewin said. “He is incredibly proud to be born in Israel,” she added.

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