Jerusalem has many mysteries, but none may be as perplexing at present as its temporary disappearance from the Democratic Party platform.
Several people involved in the platform’s writing who spoke to JTA late Monday and early Tuesday said they did not know how boilerplate references to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital that have appeared in Democratic platforms for decades were dropped from the platform before its release Monday night.
But by late Tuesday afternoon – after Republicans launched a full-force offensive criticizing the omission – the Democrats reversed course. Robert Wexler, a member of the platform draft committee, and a chief Jewish surrogate for the Obama campaign, credited President Obama for the change.
“They are returning the language to the 2008 situation,” Wexler told JTA late Tuesday. “The president directly intervened to make sure this amendment happened.”
He and other party sources told JTA and other news outlets that language affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would be inserted into the party platform by a voice vote on Wednesday evening. What may have appeared to skeptics as an exercise in damage control was described by Democratic insiders as the correction of an inadvertent error.
Earlier Tuesday, Republicans had slammed the ommission.
“It is unfortunate that the entire Democratic Party has embraced President Obama’s shameful refusal to acknowledge that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, said in a statement. Romney called Jerusalem Israel’s capital during his visit to the city in July.
Mostly lost in the debate over the Democratic platform was that Republicans also altered the language on Jerusalem in their document, removing a specific reference to the city as Israel’s “undivided” capital and a promise to move the U.S. Embassy there.
Initial statements from the Democratic National Committee in Charlotte, where the party’s convention is being held, suggested that the intention indeed was to bring the platform in compliance with White House policy. The statements noted that it has never been the policy of any president , Republican or Democrat, to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“The Obama Administration has followed the same policy towards Jerusalem that previous U.S. administrations of both parties have done since 1967,” the statement said. “As the White House said several months ago, the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians – which we also said in the 2008 platform.”
The reference to final-status negotiations did in fact appear in the 2008 platform, but the plank also included a statement saying that “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel.”
So why did it disappear in 2012?
JTA spoke to three people directly involved in shaping the platform, and a number of others who had consulted with the party. The short answer: No one knew.
“There was no discussion on it,” said Robert Wexler, a member of the platform draft committee, and a chief Jewish surrogate for the Obama campaign. “It’s a good question.”
Wexler said that those shaping the platform were not focused on final-status issues, which include Jerusalem. The former Florida congressman said he did not know if there was a directive from the Obama campaign to avoid such issues, but said it was fair to “deduce” that there was.
Instead, said Wexler – the only person involved in shaping the platform who agreed to speak on the record to JTA – the campaign wanted the draft committee to focus on security issues in its Israel section, an area that the platform makes clear is a priority.
“A strong and secure Israel is vital to the United States not simply because we share strategic interests, but also because we share common values,” the 2012 platform reads, listing defense assistance, missile defense cooperation and maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge. “The President’s consistent support for Israel’s right to defend itself and his steadfast opposition to any attempt to delegitimize Israel on the world stage are further evidence of our enduring commitment to Israel’s security.”
A separate section on Iran breaks new ground by making more explicit than in previous platforms that a military strike is an option to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“President Obama believes that a diplomatic outcome remains the best and most enduring solution,” the platform says. “At the same time, he has also made clear that the window for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely and that all options – including military force – remain on the table.” The 2008 platform refers only to “keeping all options on the table.”
Frustrated Democrats said the Jerusalem flap obscured the enhancements of language guaranteeing Israel’s security.
“We focused the platform on President Obama’s undeniable and unshakable commitment to Israel’s security, and we described the president’s unprecedented record in this regard,” said a statement that the DNC attributed to a spokeswoman. “This is just another attempt by the Romney campaign to turn our support for Israel – which has always been bipartisan – into a partisan wedge issue by playing politics. This is both cynical and counter-productive to Israel’s security.”
Such answers still beg the question of why nine words appearing in the 2008 document – “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel” – did not reappear four years later.
Wexler, who insisted that he did not have inside information beyond the broad campaign directive to focus on security, speculated that the omission reflected the difference between a nonincumbent candidate, who has greater flexibility, and a president who has established policies.
“Jerusalem is a final-status issue,” said Wexler, who delivered a fiery pro-Israel speech Tuesday during prime time. “There’s nothing about settlements or ‘67 lines or borders in here.”
Obama, after 2 1/2 years of pressing such final-status issues, has instead made Iran his Middle East focus over the past 18 months, in part because tensions between Iran and Israel over Iran’s suspected nuclear program have intensified and threaten to erupt into war.
“It’s not the issue of the day – there aren’t peace negotiations right now,” Wexler told JTA. “The issue of the day is Israel’s security, how will we stop Iran’s nuclear program.”
There are traditionally twin exigencies in shaping platforms: Reflecting a presidential agenda and deferring to interest groups. When they clash, the candidate may defer to interest groups whose platform submissions contradict his own, with the knowledge that presidents ignore platforms at little political cost; or the candidate may intervene to head off interest groups, if the inclusion of their claims in the platform poses the risk of reverberating beyond the convention.
Romney exercised both options in his treatment of this year’s Republican Party platform. He allowed in a pro-life platform plank that opposed abortions with no exemptions for rape and incest while noting that his administration would support such exemptions. Conversely, his surrogates intervened to head off an attempt by Republicans with ties to settler groups to remove references to a two-state, Israel-Palestine solution from the platform.
It’s not clear what role, if any, pro-Israel groups played in the removal of the Jerusalem language from the Democratic Party platform, or if they tried to keep in the language.
A Jewish official speaking on background said that at least three American Israel Public Affairs Committee officials were present during the entire period when the platform was drafted last month in Minneapolis. Other Democratic and Jewish officials confirmed AIPAC’s participation in the process. Wexler said he had consulted with AIPAC officials on parts of the platform but had not discussed Jerusalem with them.
A source close to AIPAC said the group never saw the full platform language, and that AIPAC officials were not in the room when the platform was being drafted. The source noted that AIPAC in its written submissions had made the case for including a reference to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but also noted that AIPAC regarded the final draft Israel sections of both party platforms as “strong.”
The Anti-Defamation League included language referencing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in its written submission to both platform committees; the American Jewish Committee did not.
Republican language on Jerusalem also shifted between 2008 and 2012. The ‘08 platform included the following sentences: “We support the vision of two democratic states living in peace and security: Israel, with Jerusalem as its capital, and Palestine,” and “We support Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.”
A slightly rewritten version of the first sentence appears in the ‘12 platform, but the second sentence disappeared – an omission notable because Republicans four yeas ago made much of how Obama the candidate pledged an “undivided” Jerusalem to the AIPAC policy conference and then retreated the next day after pushback from critics.
The Romney campaign referred questions about the GOP platform to the Republican National Committee. RNC officials did not respond to several requests for comment.