Before he formally accepted his party’s presidential nomination on Thursday night, President Barack Obama had to step in to change part of the Democratic platform.
At first glance, worrying about a few sentences in the foreign policy chapter of the document would seem out of the ordinary. Foreign policy has scantly been a major issue in the campaign. But the subject under the microscope was not about some marginal country but about the state of Israel, a country that administrations of both parties have pledged to support, work with and defend.
After learning that the status of Jerusalem was omitted from the party platform, President Obama personally pushed to have the language changed.
In the original document, Democratic drafters did not even mention Jerusalem, preferring instead to highlight the president’s record in standing with Israel over the past four years. That record includes more than $10 billion in American aid to Israeli defense programs, $70 million to the Jewish nation’s Iron Dome missile defense shield; opposition to the Palestinian bid for independent membership in the United Nations General Assembly; a Security Council veto of a resolution denouncing Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.
Nevertheless, the failure to call the city of Jerusalem Israel’s undivided and official capital in the platform invited a torrent of criticism from pro-Israel groups in the Democratic delegation, as well as from Obama’s Republican challenger Mitt Romney who has consistently stated that the city of Jerusalem should always be, and will always be, in Israeli hands.
Coupled with the criticism, the Republican Party made it abundantly clear in its own platform that a future Romney Administration would unequivocally support Israel in the region, including in international forums such as the United Nations and during any peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
President Obama was left in an awkward position. Concerned about possibly losing a segment of the Jewish vote to Romney ahead of November’s election, he decided to have the original language shifted to include Jerusalem as Israel’s capital:
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.
Politically speaking for Obama, this was an obvious move. Throughout the campaign season, his political opponents have pummeled him for not maintaining and further promoting an American-Israel special relationship that has lasted for decades. Republicans have used Obama’s visibly cool relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as evidence of the president’s neglect of the Jewish state, with Romney frequently telling Americans that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus.”
With the November poll now less than two months away, the last thing Obama and the Democratic Party need is another talking point about how neglectful the Obama White House has been about Israel. Sensing an opportunity for Republicans, the president quickly stepped in to change the language before further damage was done.
Practically speaking, however, the change in the platform runs contrary to what the United States government’s actual policy on Jerusalem is. Rather than simply giving the city to the Israelis without any discussion, Washington has always said that the final status of Jerusalem should be the product of Israeli-Palestinian peace talk. The rhetorical change in the platform suggests that Obama is either no longer beholding to that principle or that election year politics is at the moment more important than sustaining America’s role as a strong, credible and impartial mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Either way, it will be hard for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas not to consider Obama’s intervention as yet another defeat for his hope of a two-state solution.