The Washington Post

Democrats restore party platform language on Jerusalem, following GOP criticism

Democratic delegates restored to their party platform Wednesday the position that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, reversing a controversial omission that had angered some Jewish organizations and drew criticism from Republicans that President Obama was distancing the United States from its closest ally in the Middle East.

The amendment to the platform, which essentially reinstates the language on Jerusalem from the 2008 version, was introduced by former Ohio governor Ted Strickland. It was put to a voice vote by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, the convention chairman, who asked three times for “aye” votes before determining that the amendment had a two-thirds majority.

The vote was far from decisive, however, and angered many delegates who opposed the reinstatement of the language. Some stood up from their seats inside the Time Warner Arena, shaking their fingers at Villaraigosa.

At the same time, the change did not go as far as some delegates or Jewish organizations wanted, and it underscored yet again how complicated and perilous Obama’s relationship is with the American politics over Israel. An Obama campaign official said the president intervened Wednesday to strengthen the platform language on Jerusalem.

The adopted language reads: “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”

The party’s original 2012 platform, characterized by GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s supporters as a “radical distancing” of the United States from Israel, had become a point of contention at the Democratic convention and a potential source of tension between Obama and Jewish voters.

But some major Jewish organizations, while expressing disappointment in the new platform statement on Jerusalem, on Wednesday described it nonetheless as strongly supportive of Israel and not likely to generate widespread Jewish antipathy toward Obama in the weeks before Election Day.

“AIPAC believes this is a very pro-Israel platform,” said a person close to the most politically influential Jewish organization, known formally as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The main source of controversy over the Democrats’ platform was the omission of any reference to Jerusalem, even though the 2008 plank stated that the city “is and will remain” Israel’s capital.

But some Jews and Romney supporters noted that the 2012 platform also changes the party’s position on the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendents: It no longer rules out their right to return to property in Israel under a final peace agreement.

The 2008 platform said Palestinians would be able to resettle only inside a future Palestinian state, not inside Israel. But Democratic delegates did not add that to the 2012 platform, nor did they add a line from 2008 that described Israel as “our strongest ally in the region.”

In a statement before the Jerusalem change was made, former U.S. senator Norm Coleman (Minn.), a co-chairman of the Romney campaign, said, “The Democratic Party is signaling a radical shift in its orientation, away from Israel.”

The 2008 platform changes more closely aligned the Democratic plank with long-standing U.S. policy, which holds that issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the rights of Palestinian refugees and other final-status matters should be settled through direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“The president’s position has been completely consistent since 2008,” Jen Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman, told reporters Wednesday, referring to his view that Jerusalem’s status should be settled via negotiation. “This is one example of a time when a position and an issue where there has been bipartisan agreement on, Republicans are trying to make it into a wedge issue, and that’s very disappointing.”

The U.S. government does not formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — its embassy is in Tel Aviv — because Palestinians also claim the holy city as the capital of their future state. Israel occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed it, although the move is not recognized internationally.

“The language in the platform is 100 percent pro-Israel language,” said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic House member from Florida who now runs the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in Washington.

Wexler, who acted as a liaison for Obama to a sometimes-suspicious Jewish community during the 2008 campaign, served on the platform-drafting committee and helped write the section on Israel.

He has heard the criticism, including Coleman’s complaint that the document does not explicitly condemn the armed Islamist movement Hamas, which the United States and Israel classify as a terrorist organization.

Wexler pointed to the section that notes “we have deepened defense cooperation — including funding the [missile defense] Iron Dome system — to help Israel address its most pressing threats, including the growing danger posed by rockets and missiles emanating from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.”

“The overarching principle of this section of the platform was to underscore America’s unbreakable bond with Israel in the context of today — the continuation of Iran’s nuclear program, Hezbollah’s missiles in southern Lebanon, and the rockets of Hamas in Gaza,” Wexler said. “The issues that were front and center in 2008 were not the same that are front and center in 2012.”

But Wexler, who devoted his four-minute speech Tuesday at the convention to U.S.-Israel relations, said the fact that the platform leaves Jerusalem, refugee rights and other final-status issues up to Israelis and Palestinians should be applauded by even Israel’s most hawkish parties.

“They have long made clear they do not want to be dictated to by the United States,” he said. “The only thing I can say is that I give credit to the Republican Party, really, for creating a lot of anger over what is essentially nothing in the last few days.”

David Nakamura contributed to this report.

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.

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