A capital idea

Jewish Light Editorial

How much is to be made of the dustup last week over the Democratic platform flipflop over the exclusion, and then inclusion, of declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? It really depends on who’s talking and who’s listening.

The issue was raised when Republicans pointed out that the Democratic platform omitted a statement about the Israeli capital. The platform had a great deal to say about support for Israel, not only in concept but by iteration of the administration’s collaboration with Israel on coordinating military operations and funding key defense systems.

Interestingly, when the issue was first brought up, there was barely a yawn from the major Israeli newspapers. Neither the Jerusalem Post, the most-read Israeli paper in the United States, nor Haaretz, the major English language paper in Israel, focused on it, despite stories about other aspects of the platform. Only after the point-counterpoint emerged among the American political camps did the issue receive significant reporting by them, and then the news was mostly about the political slogging between the American parties.

This is hardly surprising, because the “news” about the platform was in some ways no news at all by Israeli standards. The question of Jerusalem’s status has been a batted beachball for a long, long time. Foreign nations retain their embassies in Tel Aviv, owing to the internationally disputed nature of Jerusalem as the capital. While many nations, including the United States, retain diplomatic missions in Jerusalem, they have largely shied away from having their major diplomatic beachheads in the Israeli capital.

So how important is it to aver in a political party platform that Jerusalem is the capital?

Important enough during a political campaign that the omission brought vocal chastisement. “Mitt Romney has consistently stated his belief that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” according to Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “Now is the time for President Barack Obama to state in unequivocal terms whether or not he believes Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”

This did not fall on deaf ears, as the Democratic convention delegates were asked to vote on a change reinstating the declaration of Jerusalem as the capital – at the urging of President Barack Obama himself. And despite a process that was dubious at best – the chair, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, asked for three separate voice votes, which sounded fairly well divided – the chair declared the requisite two-thirds majority in favor of adding the language.

All well and good, but is the flurry meaningful, or rather, to quote William Shakespeare, a matter “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?” For while American law recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that language allows for a presidential waiver—and Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, over the course of almost 20 years, have all availed themselves of that provision to leave Jerusalem’s status to final status negotiations.

Why? Because there has been a recognition that to keep the option of a successful end-game available in the on-again, off-again talks between Israel and the Palestinians, avoiding a hard-core declaration, either in writing or by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, would eliminate the last vestiges of hope for a diplomatic solution.

Not everyone sees it that way, of course, and we’re not just talking about those affiliated with political parties. So from the Chicago Sun Times this week, in arguing for the benefits of an affirmative declaration: “Far from harming the chances for peace, it would enhance them by injecting a cold hard fact into the negotiations. It would be a powerful answer to the poisonous Palestinian propaganda seeking to deny any Jewish connection to the city.”

Perhaps, but it should not be forgotten that the Democratic platform even before the change had highly supportive pro-Israel language in it, stating in part that “there will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met…. And even as the President and the Democratic Party continue to encourage all parties to be resolute in the pursuit of peace, we will insist that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel’s right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to existing agreements.”

While we don’t on balance see the initial omission as a major issue in the context of the other pro-Israel rhetoric embedded in the platform, we do think it’s very good that it was reintroduced. We understand that the objectives of political parties and candidates are focused on winning, but a party’s platform in some ways represents the highest aspirations of its leaders. Seeing the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reflected in the documents of both major parties is yet another reminder of the importance of the issue to the Jewish people.