There are times when even the most ardent supporters of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem wish the politicians would just shut up.
Not that they mind it when people like Sen. Barack Obama, the putative Democratic nominee for president, wax lyrical about the Jewish state’s capital. When Obama told the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., earlier this month that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," he was cheered to the echo.
In doing so, Obama was following a long tradition observed by both Republicans and Democrats who have been feeding Jewish audiences with the proverbial red meat about this core issue.
Obama’s sudden enunciation of a hard line on Jerusalem recalls the decision of former Sen. Bob Dole — a man who’d previously never evinced much interest in Zionism — to introduce legislation requiring the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 1995. This happened to coincide with the fact that he was running for president the following year and was hopeful of Jewish contributions, if not votes.
For decades, both parties played this card every four years, putting the same sentiment about the embassy in their platforms. Of course, no president ever elected on such a platform, including some like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who were both sympathetic to Israel, ever fulfilled that promise. And although Dole’s bill was passed, it included a poison pill allowing the president to enact a waiver to put off moving the embassy. Both Clinton and President George W. Bush used that waiver to make sure that the embassy stays put.
Due to the fact that the United States has never formally recognized Israel’s hold on its "eternal and indivisible" capital, surely none but the most simple-minded of Israel’s supporters in this country ever thought that the embassy was going anywhere anytime soon. But the ritual statements put forward on the issue are considered a measure of good intentions, if nothing else.
Still, Obama’s speech was politically significant. Unlike most of the recent presidential candidates of both parties, Obama does not have a track record on Israel. And his associations with some anti-Israel foreign-policy wonks, as well as with others considered favorable to the Palestinians, have raised other questions. Like Bush, who entered the ‘000 election with many assuming he was as unsympathetic to the Jewish state as his father, Obama has something to prove. But unlike Bush, who was elected with little Jewish support, Obama cannot afford to let the bad vibes about Israel significantly diminish the usually overwhelming Jewish vote for the Democrats.
That explains the decision to have him verbally wave the blue-and-white flag over Jerusalem. Unfortunately for Obama and Israel, his comments to AIPAC were spoiled within ‘4 hours when he backtracked on the "undivided" Jerusalem talk after the Palestinian Authority and various Arab nations denounced his stand. So a day after drawing a line in the sand on Israel’s hold on the city, Obama told CNN that although he wanted the city to stay united, "as a practical matter, it would be very difficult to execute."
Later, a spokesperson tried to explain that what Obama was against was a return to a division via "barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-67."
Well, I should hope not. During the 19 years prior to the unification of the city during the 1967 Six Day War, Jordanian occupation of parts of the city meant no Jew could step foot on Judaism’s holiest places, which were also frequently desecrated.
Obama’s dilemma shows how hard it is for a man who likes the idea that most of the world (which does not share America’s love for Israel) is rooting for him, but still wants to assure Jewish Democrats that they can trust him.
Of course, his Republican rival, the presumptive GOP candidate Sen. John McCain, was quick to deride Obama’s flip-flop. But even though Jewish Republicans think they can make hay on this issue, McCain’s stand is also that Jerusalem’s status is subject to negotiations — the same as both President Bush and Obama. But just to show how experienced a hand he is at working the pro-Israel crowd, McCain added "we should move our embassy to Jerusalem before anything happens."
McCain’s sympathy for Israel and antipathy to its foes is a matter of record, but we all know that pigs will fly before an ambassador to Israel appointed by a President McCain reports for work in Jerusalem.
That said, the rhetorical games about Jerusalem do have some impact beyond the dash for votes.
Despite the growing chorus of pundits who claim that groups like AIPAC are unrepresentative of Israel’s supporters in this nation, the fact is that most Americans still wholeheartedly support Israel’s stand on Jerusalem.
Even though Israel’s current prime minister has hinted that he will allow some of the Arab neighborhoods of the city to go to a Palestinian state in peace agreement, the odds of such a deal happening anytime in the foreseeable future are virtually nil. Even those few Palestinians who would make such a deal know that they cannot stop Hamas terrorists from using any soil surrendered to them from being used as a base for terror.
But that hasn’t stopped some of Israel’s critics and a few who claim to be its friends from asking that the United States pressure Israel to be make more futile concessions, including some on Jerusalem. In particular, some of Obama’s fans on the left have been hoping that he would do so, and were bitterly disappointed by his speech to AIPAC.
But their hopes are absurd. Pressure on Israel doesn’t bring peace; it just undermines the already slim chances that the Palestinians will come to their senses and start reconciling themselves to the reality of the Jewish state.
Outside of the pro-Arab lobby and a small cadre of Jewish left-wingers — whose agenda is divorced from the realities of the Middle East and more about opposition to AIPAC’s status as the pre-eminent pro-Israel lobby than anything else — few in this country want to pressure Jerusalem. Indeed, as Obama’s statements trying to reassure the country of his pro-Israel views this year demonstrated, support for the Jewish state remains a consensus issue that candidates ignore at their peril. Anything that clouds the issue, including Obama’s backtracking, will only encourage more Israel-bashing, not peace.
As the general election begins to unfold, Obama needs to stop trying to fine-tune his stances. More clarifications, such as those that followed his AIPAC speech, will only reinforce doubts about his steadfastness, and hurt him and the U.S.-Israel alliance. If he can’t stick to that line, it would almost be better to say nothing. Rather than worrying about being accused of pandering to the Jews, the best thing for both him and the cause of peace is to stick to the pro-Israel playbook.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.