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 men like Sen. Barack Obama, the putative
Democratic nominee for president, waxed 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.
PLAYING THE CARD
Indeed, Obama's sudden annunciation 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 have
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 2000 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 24 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
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
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
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.