After two days of a public and acrimonious fight with Jewish organizations, Democrats have retreated and restored language into the platform that recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The issue, which was finally resolved on the floor of the Democratic National Convention today, was widely seen in pro-Israel circles as an embarrassment for the Obama campaign and a battle that needlessly rekindled mistrust of the administration by pro-Israel groups.
At the nub of the mess was former Florida congressman Robert Wexler, a frequent spinner for Barack Obama in 2008 and again in this election in trying to dampen concerns about Obama’s views on Israel. In defending the Democrats on the platform committee, Wexler essentially called pro-Israel groups liars for claiming that they did not see or vet the language.
Foreign Policy reported today that Wexler confirmed that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) “was present at all public parts of the drafting process and had regular interactions with drafting committee members [and] suggested some changes to the platform that were adopted, but never brought up the Jerusalem issue.”
An irate Jewish leader who has direct knowledge of the platform-drafting meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity told me that Wexler “came late to Minneapolis and didn’t bother to show up in Detroit” for meetings where the platform came together. The source said derisively, “How is he in a position to know anything?”
The Democrats’ reversal, coming only hours after Foreign Policy published its article, is seen by some as a rebuke to those who, as the leader says, were trying to act ”surreptitiously.”
Richard Grenell, who was briefly with the Romney campaign but continues to have a close relationship with senior campaign adviser Richard Williamson, e-mailed me as news of the reversal came: “The Democrats’ convention is like their policy management – everything is ad hoc, last-minute and leading from behind.” On Israel, Grenell echoed precisely the Romney-Ryan view that the “Obama team struggles to be a consistent and faithful ally to Israel. They respond only when pressured or criticized.”
The Democratic retreat indicates recognition that the uproar over the Israel plank of the platform was badly affecting both the convention and the Obama team’s ongoing efforts to soothe what should be a reliable voting bloc for their candidate.
The incident leaves several unanswered questions.
First, has Wexler lost any remaining credibility as an administration emissary to Jewish groups and leaders? By accusing them on the record of feigning outrage, he stepped over a line of propriety and civil discussion — creating a breach rarely seen between a White House and the Jewish community. Although Wexler may not be formally dumped from the Obama team, his utility is now greatly reduced and his relationship with critical Jewish leaders is badly frayed.
Second, the revised platform will be out of sync with the president, who has refused to say whether Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state. Will he adjust his language on Thursday night? After the pummeling during the convention, whatever Obama says is likely to be regarded by skeptics as extracted under duress. It is hard to see how nervous Jewish voters see this as anything other than a bitter reminder of the White House’s ineptness on virtually all issues regarding Israel.
And finally, Jerusalem was not the only omission in the platform language. Will Democrats also reinstate language from 2008 that pledges to isolate Hamas and states that Palestinian refugees should not go to Israel (no “right of return”) as well? One Jewish official suggested to me that only the Jerusalem language would be reinstated to the platform.
For now, the ugly episode is put to rest. But now the pressure is on the president. What will he say? And at this point, will it make any difference?
Consider this to be just one more example of an administration that is either incompetent or not especially sympathetic to Israel, or both.
UPDATE (6:35 p.m.): AIPAC issued a terse statement: “We welcome reinstatement to the Democratic platform of the language affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Together, these party platforms reflect strong bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
A statement from the Romney campaign was more punishing: “Mitt Romney has consistently stated his belief that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Although today’s voice vote at the Democratic National Convention was unclear, the Democratic Party has acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. President Obama has repeatedly refused to say the same himself. Now is the time for President Obama to state in unequivocal terms whether or not he believes Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”
All eyes and ears will be set on the president’s comments, if any, on Israel tomorrow.
UPDATE II (6:46 p.m.): The Republican Jewish Coalition put out a statement following the raucous effort on the convention floor to reinstate the Jerusalem platform language. “This is a very sad day. To hear delegates on the floor of the Democratic convention strongly voice their opposition to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, then boo when the chairman passes the resolution to adopt that language, is a shock. This unfortunate incident highlights the split among rank-and-file Democrats when it comes to the critical issue of Israel, something we’ve seen for some time. Gallup polling has shown that Republicans have been consistently more likely to support Israel than Democrats for over a decade. It is painful to see that demonstrated so clearly in this national forum.”