Jerusalem: Political Football in U.S. Presidential Race

Earlier this month, the issue of Jerusalem took center stage – both literally and figuratively – at the Democratic Convention that nominated President Obama as the Democratic party candidate for the November 2012 US presidential election. In a nutshell, the Democratic platform – a collection of statements summarizing party positions on a range of issues – for the first time in memory omitted any mention of Jerusalem, including any mention of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This omission was notable mainly because it was so bizarre. Language on Jerusalem is de rigeur in party platforms and is an entirely pro forma affair. Just like with promises made by presidential candidates in every election campaign to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – promises that are set aside by both parties when they enter the White House – assertions in a platform that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel are simultaneously expected to be there, and expected to have zero impact on US policy post-election.

A very public brouhaha ensued when the omission of Jerusalem from the platform was discovered (along with the omission of any mention of God). After hours of very messy public statements from Democratic party officials – who seemed to be caught by surprise by the mess and totally unprepared in terms of knowing how to react – the party decided that the best option was to say that it was all a mistake and amend the platform to include language on Jerusalem and God. This amendment was achieved via a voice vote of delegates present in the convention center where the event was taking place –a vote that had to be taken multiple times due to the fact that so many voices voted against the amendment (so many, in fact, that speculation continues in both the left-wing and right-wing press that the amendment actually failed).

That is what happened. Writing about the mess when it first started (in a piece entitled Hurricane Jerusalem Hits the DNC) Danny Seidemann noted:

“…predictably [the issue of Jerusalem and the platform is] being used by opponents to mobilize political backlash of Biblical proportions—as some might believe befits an issue that in Israeli and American political circles (and among both Republicans and Democrats) has for years been dealt with not as sober, responsible policy-making, but as a heavy-handed manipulation of domestic passion, real or imagined.

“…If Israelis, such as myself, view Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, we are painfully aware that no other country on the planet does. There is not one foreign embassy in Jerusalem. So 45 years after the Six Day War and 12 years after Camp David, the only place that Jerusalem remains the eternal, undivided capital of Israel is in the fantasies of the ideological right in Israel and the United States.

“…The ideological, largely religious right within the American Jewish community, and key elements in the Jewish establishment, have dictated the terms of reference on this issue, obfuscating the distinction between pro-Likud and pro-Israel. It has become politically suicidal to refrain from declaring loyalty to an undivided Jerusalem in which no one, save the ignorant and the true believers on the fringes, genuinely believe. Parties, party platforms, and even Presidential candidates pander to what they, correctly or incorrectly, perceive to be ‘the Jewish vote,’ advocating policies—like transferring the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—that no responsible president, regardless of party, will carry out. The discourse on Jerusalem within the political arena in the United States is a charade, and all but the deluded and the devout know it.

“The fact that no American president, Republican or Democrat, has ever fulfilled the pre-election promises of moving the embassy to Jerusalem, or recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, is hardly an accident. There is a shared, bi-partisan perception that Israel can achieve what it most richly deserves—recognition of Israeli Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—only in the framework of a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians. Were an American President to be so foolhardy as to act pre-maturely, such a move would not contribute one iota to the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. On the contrary: doing so would sentence the U.S. to join Israel in self-imposed, self-defeating isolation; it would undermine an already challenged American leadership in the Middle East; it would disqualify the United States in its role as fair broker, without which no agreement between Israel and Palestine can be possible.

“In rejecting the rhetorical flourishes of domestic politics, and by soberly assessing these realities, successive presidents have not ‘thrown Israel under the bus.’ Rather, they have grounded their platform in reality, one informed by sound policy, not pandering politics…”

Writing less than 24 hours later, Danny observed:

“It is approaching 5 AM in Jerusalem. It’s not unusual for me to awake at this hour, checking what might have happened in Jerusalem while I slept. Watching Jerusalem like a hawk is what I do. Sometimes, like today, I discover that something happened; invariably I go back to sleep. I will try to do so in a bit.

“While I slept, the DNC reinserted ‘Jerusalem as the capital of Israel’ into its platform.

“Had the language of the 2008 platform, in which ‘Jerusalem as capital’ was included, remained unchanged in 2012, my colleague Lara Friedman and I would probably have been the only ones on the planet to notice; it is our métier. And had the absence of such wording gone unnoticed in 2012 (which clearly would have been the case were we living in a saner political world), we, too, would have not paid note. But the omission was there, and then the magical words were reinstated, so some observations are in order:

“* Dealing with the issue of Jerusalem is not for the faint of heart or the weak of knee. The rapid reversion to atavistic rhetoric comes as no surprise.
* I went to sleep in a remarkable, charismatic yet deeply scarred city, unmentioned in the DNC platform. I have awoken to a changed platform, and a city that is as exactly as undivided as it was when I went to bed. If Jerusalem were to speak Yiddish (and believe, it does some time) it would be saying to folks in Charlotte: ‘Gezugt’ (paraphrased: ‘nu, so you said so, so what?’)
* When I wrote my original piece a few short hours ago, I feared my comments would be interpreted as being motivated by partisan politics. I now see that fear was baseless. Mindless tribalism on an issue of cardinal importance to Israelis, Americans and many others throughout the world, is truly bi-partisan.
* There is a lot of smugness out there tonight among those who got the Jerusalem language reinstated. Nothing will likely pierce their self-satisfaction. But those who are genuinely committed to securing Israel’s place in the sun should remind themselves: Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, which poses a real existential threat to Israel, will end in Jerusalem, or it will never end at all. Those out there patting themselves on the back have made the latter eventuality – that this will never end – a bit more likely. Damage has been done, and by those who most purport to be ‘friends of Israel.’
* Jerusalem is a wise city and has seen it all. Having survived endless and recurring abuse, Jerusalem will clearly overcome the ripples coming from the post-pathetic soap opera in which it unwillingly starred in the last day or so.”