Conventional Wisdom

Hurricane "Jerusalem" Hits the DNC

Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Image

Jerusalem always comes up during U.S. political campaign season, and this year is no different. In July, GOP candidate Mitt Romney came to Jerusalem, where he skillfully bobbed and wove his way around the issue, expressing fidelity to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but stopping short of promising to move the U.S. embassy there the moment he becomes President. Now, apparently, it’s the Democrats' turn.

In the spotlight today is a tweak in the Democratic platform—a tweak that doesn't signal even the tiniest shift in U.S. policy on the issue, but that in a modest way brings the platform in line with what has been U.S. policy dating back decades. The 2008 platform stated: "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." In the newly approved 2012 document, there is no mention of Jerusalem, stating that Obama and the Democratic Party “maintain an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security,” and, “It is precisely because of this commitment that President Obama and the Democratic Party seek peace between Israelis and Palestinians... A just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples, would contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state."

Under saner circumstances, this would be an almost perfunctory rephrasing of the U.S. commitment to Israel in a way that does not fly in the face of longstanding U.S. policy. Instead, it's perhaps predictably 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.

Upon my arrival in Israel more than forty years ago, I too subscribed to the "Jerusalem mantra," whereby Jerusalem was "the-eternal-undivided-capital-of-Israel-that-would-never-be-redivided" (one word, and a noun). It was consensus, the impermeable devotion to an article of faith. The harsh realities in the ensuing years undermined that faith, and finally, in the summer of 2000, during President Clinton’s Camp David summit, it collapsed. It then became apparent, and has remained so, that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will end within the borders of a politically divided city. Jerusalem was deflowered at Camp David.

The inevitability of a political division of Jerusalem is not only commonplace within the Israeli left and the international community, but in the Israeli center and center-right. Ehud Olmert, whose roots are in the ideological right and who, as Jerusalem mayor, was the most articulate and effective advocate of an undivided Jerusalem, proposed, as Israel’s Prime Minister, a division of the city. Today, that same Olmert asserts that no peace is or will be possible with an “undivided Jerusalem.” In doing so, he is merely, albeit courageously, facing facts. Jerusalem is indeed an Israeli city, but not exclusively so: it is emphatically a bi-national city, with 38 percent of its population being Palestinians, and not citizens of Israel. And Jerusalem is divided in more ways than one can imagine: Israelis and Palestinians do not share schools, curricula, neighborhoods, streets, shopping areas, and so on.

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.

Initially, public opinion within the American Jewish community on the Jerusalem issue lagged behind these evolving perceptions, and for very understandable reasons. It is quite easy to ridicule American Jews applauding furiously to the florid, patriotic rhetoric on Jerusalem—the equivalent of the clueless tourist in a Hawaiian shirt. The caricature may be easy, but it is entirely undeserved: the devotion of American Jews draws from a genuine attachment to the city, and genuine concern for Israel’s well-being. If it took time for the Diaspora’s perceptions of the city to get in sync with the changing realities, this derived in large part from a very respectable deference to Israeli leadership on this issue. But today, many—if not most—American Jews know what almost everyone else knows: the conflict between Israel and Palestine will end in Jerusalem, or it will never end at all.

This maturing process—the transformation of a teenage infatuation into a mature, adult love—has regrettably bypassed the political arena in 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.

Those of us who deal with Jerusalem relate to presidential elections in the United States much as Floridians do to the hurricane season: we board up our windows, hunker down, hope for the best, and wait for the season to pass (when possible, maintaining a sense of humor).

The decision by the Democratic National Committee not to include the meaningless "Jerusalem-capital-of-Israel" language into its party platform is a breath of fresh air. It is a small but significant indication that the discussion on Israel and Palestine may be leaving the parallel universe in which it has flourished—in total detachment from the real world—and returning to the universe in which empirical realities matter.

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In the simple assertion—one to which Israel’s leaders have formally agreed—that the status of Jerusalem will be determined through negotiations, the DNC has made a modest but significant contribution to creating political breathing space needed to conduct a frank discussion, even (and, perhaps, especially) during an election campaign. In doing so, they have acted responsibly, in accordance with not only the vital interests of the United States, but those of its ally, Israel.