Case of Capitol caption has Israel activists aflutter
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Case of Capitol caption has Israel activists aflutter

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The White House deleted the reference to Israel in a photo caption on its website of Vice President Joe Biden having breakfast with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem in March 2010. It said it did so to reflect a longstanding U.S. policy on the city’s status. Courtesy David Lienemann, The White House

JERUSALEM”“To be or not to be part of Israel. That is the question that White House administrations have tiptoed around for decades.

The State Department does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital. It also does not accept that the eastern part of the city – captured from Jordan in the June 1967 Six-Day War and subsequently annexed – is part of Israel. Congress, on the other hand, has effectively recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and left all sections of the city under Israeli control.

Presidents have been caught in the middle, cautiously balancing their pro-Israel rhetoric against longstanding U.S. policy.

That is exactly where the Obama administration found itself earlier in August after news reports revealed that the White House quietly had removed all references to Jerusalem as being part of Israel from a collection of photos on its website.

The Weekly Standard reported Aug. 9 about a set of White House photos from Jerusalem that had been scrubbed of all explicit references to Israel. Whereas a caption for a shot of Vice President Joe Biden once said that he was dining at the “David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel,” for instance, the photo was altered to read just “Jerusalem.”

Some pro-Israel activists were incensed by the change, charging a White House whitewash and claiming definitive proof that President Obama disdains Israel. To others, it appeared that the president was kowtowing to pressure from the State Department, which recently reiterated its policy against recognizing Jerusalem as part of Israel.

The White House, however, upon discovering the captions referring to “Jerusalem, Israel” – and with the Obama administration’s policy on Jerusalem being no different from those of all his predecessors in the Oval Office who have faced this issue – corrected them to reflect the longstanding U.S. policy.

“U.S. policy for more than 40 years has been that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in final-status negotiations between the parties,” a White House official said last week in response to an inquiry about the matter. “As in prior administrations, the White House photo captions should reflect that policy.”

For the White House, Jerusalem is just Jerusalem until the Israelis and Palestinians sign a peace deal.

A virtual tour of the White House’s online archives shows that President George W. Bush had a similar photo rule: pictures of him in Jerusalem do not denote that the city is located in Israel. During one such trip to the Jewish state in 2008, for instance, Bush visited “Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, in Jerusalem,” according to the caption written by the Bush administration.

“The status of Jerusalem will be ultimately determined by the interested parties,” Bush said in 2001.

If nothing substantial had changed from Bush to Obama, why did the photo snafu receive so much attention?

First there was the public relations gaffe: Jerusalem’s status is a highly charged political issue, and the Obama administration was caught red-handed fixing an embarrassing mistake.

Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that the error came after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to examine the constitutionality of the State Department’s policy on Jerusalem. The litigants in a case scheduled to be heard by the court in the fall session want their Jerusalem-born son to have his birthplace listed as “Jerusalem, Israel” on his passport, as is permitted by a 2002 federal law.

The State Department, however, has not implemented that law (under either Obama or Bush) because, it says, it violates the department’s ability to set foreign policy. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is so sensitive, the State Department maintains, that it is critical that U.S. passports only say “Jerusalem.”

Presidents often have found themselves at odds with Congress over Jerusalem. President Truman favored an “international regime for Jerusalem,” which is what the 1947 U.N. resolution establishing Israel also called for. Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Clinton all believed that negotiation should resolve the status of Jerusalem.

Congress has been more hawkish on the issue. In 1995, it overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandated the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from its current location in Tel Aviv. JTA/Washington Jewish Week

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