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U.S.: Democratic Convention Stumbles Over Jerusalem Controversy

WASHINGTON, Sep 7 2012 (IPS) - The Democratic National Convention erupted in controversy this week over the removal of a clause in the party platform stating that Jerusalem should remain Israel’s undivided capital and only grew worse when the wording was hastily re-inserted.

Though party platforms are routinely ignored by presidents and members of Congress, the politically sensitive issue of Israel, which has been particularly prominent in a U.S. presidential election where foreign policy has been downplayed by both sides, has caused ripples far beyond Washington.

The Democratic Party platform had initially intended to remove the wording from 2008 which had affirmed the party’s stance on Jerusalem in order to bring it in line with long-standing United States policy, upheld by presidents of both parties, which holds that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Both Republicans and Democrats, however, have routinely voiced support for Jerusalem being Israel’s “undivided capital” in their party platforms in order to gather support from wealthy pro-Israel donors and secure votes in swing states where Jewish voters are believed to be decisive.

Barack Obama, in a 2008 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the major pro-Israel lobbying group, said that Jerusalem must remain undivided, but quickly backtracked and has since held to a policy of keeping Jerusalem as a final status issue.

Although the George W. Bush administration repeatedly stated its intent to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, it never acted to do so, the embassy remains in Tel Aviv, and the United States still has not formally recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Numerous media outlets reported that the Democratic platform had been vetted by AIPAC, which had voiced its approval. But after the controversy erupted, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney referred to the omission of the Jerusalem statement as “shameful”, President Obama was reported to have personally intervened to have the language re-inserted.

The amendment needed approval by a two-thirds majority in a voice vote on the conference floor. The controversy deepened when three calls for a vote came back without a clear majority in favour, much less the required two-thirds. But conference chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, declared that he had heard the required majority. Video recordings of the vote cast strong doubts on that assertion.

“The handling of the Jerusalem amendment in the Democratic party platform was ham-fisted to say the least,” Saqib Ali, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates and a Democratic Party activist, told IPS.

“By ramming through the amendment on a dubious procedural move, Mayor Villagarosa and party leaders insulted those who believe Palestinians deserve equal human rights to everyone else in the world.

“The Democratic Party platform on this issue contradicts the position of the Obama administration. The divergence between the Democratic platform and the Obama administration policy just doesn’t make any sense,” Ali added.

Palestinians noted the controversy as well. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said that while the entire episode might just be “election propaganda”, a failure to recognise the Palestinian claim to east Jerusalem will “destroy the peace process” and lead to “endless war”.

The Democrats’ official stance also seems to lack support from the party’s rank and file. In a recent poll by the Arab American Institute, while nearly 60 percent of Democrats said they were not sure what they thought the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem should be, those who voiced an opinion favoured dividing the city over it being controlled by Israel alone by a nearly two-to-one margin.

“Pushing through the amendment was in part a reaction to Republican criticisms that the Obama administration – despite providing record amounts of taxpayer-funded military aid to Israel’s rightist government and blocking the United Nations from challenging Israeli violations of international humanitarian law – was somehow not supportive enough of Israel,” Professor Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, wrote in an article for Foreign Policy in Focus.

“It was also a demonstration of just how determined the Democratic Party leadership is to undermine the Middle East peace process and weaken international law, even if it means running roughshod over their members and thereby hurting their chances in November,” Zunes said.

Other observers were much more explicit about the role of the pro-Israel lobby in the incident.

John Mearsheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Chicago and co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”, says that this episode reflected how out of touch U.S. leaders are with public opinion on Israel and the Palestinians.

“I don’t think the flap over Jerusalem will have any effect on the election, since there is no evidence that Obama was responsible for the problem and he fixed it right away,” Mearsheimer told IPS.

“Nevertheless, what happened yesterday was very important because we saw right before our own eyes that the president and his lieutenants were caving into pressure from Israel and the lobby, but at the same time, there was significant opposition to what Obama was doing among the rank and file in the Democratic Party.

“Actually, this is not surprising if you look at public opinion polls on how the American people think about our special relationship with Israel. The evidence is clear that the public is generally pro-Israel, but not so much as to justify the present relationship, where we give Israel more aid than any other country and give it unconditionally.”

Notably, while Obama visibly intervened to change the party platform, he made no mention of Jerusalem in his convention speech, and barely touched upon Israel at all, confining his remarks to a pro forma statement that “Our commitment to Israel’s security must not waver, and neither must our pursuit of peace.”

Obama also was sparing in his remarks on Iran, which has been dominating U.S. foreign policy for the past year. While this may all reflect a general preference of both candidates to speak to ongoing domestic economic issues in this election, some observers thought there might be some small indication of the beginnings of a shift in pro-Israel influence on U.S. foreign policy.

“Like everyone who saw this appalling misprision of democracy by the Democratic National Convention, I was struck by the blatancy of the political manipulation on view,” former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman told IPS.

“Whatever the merits of the issue itself in terms of campaign politics, the Israel Lobby can have done itself no good by exposing its contempt for the opinion of the delegates now gathered in Charlotte in this way.”

Mearsheimer agreed. “What makes the special relationship (between the U.S. and Israel) work is the fact that the lobby is deadly effective at putting pressure on American politicians and policymakers to support Israel no matter what. If the public had a real say in our policy toward Israel, we would have a very different policy than we now have. Wednesday, that point was driven home clearly on our TV screens for all to see. Nothing like that has ever happened before.”

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