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Does Jerusalem Matter In the 2012 Election?

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver a press conference following their meeting in the Oval Office. Screen-shot from official White House video. May 18, 2009. PD, courtesy of Executive Office of the President.

Last week a bit of controversy erupted on the Democratic Convention floor when the delegates were asked to vote on amending the platform to include God and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Politico reported that President Obama himself ordered his staff to make the change after Republicans seized on both to attack the President and the party.

Democratic and Republican presidents alike have considered recognition of Jerusalem part of the final status negotiations. From Harry S. Truman through the presidency of George H.W. Bush, every president opposed Israel’s expansion in Jerusalem and asserted that the city should remain undivided.

However, for Democrats, official American policy upheld by presidents has differed from the party positions since 1972, when the party platform called for recognizing the “established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” and called for relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. With the exception of the 1988 Democratic Party platform in which Jerusalem was not mentioned even once, the Democratic Party was the first to call for recognition of Jerusalem and has maintained this position since. Presidential policy positions on Jerusalem shifted with the presidency of Bill Clinton. The Clinton administration essentially gave Israel a de facto green light for settlements in East Jerusalem, and the Clinton Parameters, established in 2000, broke from the long-standing position that Jerusalem remain an open city. The 2012 Democratic Party position emphasizes that Jerusalem is part of final status negotiations for the first time since the party’s began taking a position on the issue 40 years ago. This language is not surprising given that President Obama himself ordered the change to the party platform.

As for the Republicans, the first time Jerusalem was mentioned in the party platform was in 1980. However, the Republican Party, in contrast to the Democrats, held the position “that Jerusalem should remain an undivided city with continued free and unimpeded access to all holy places by people of all faiths.” The first key change in the Republican position occurred in 1992 when the party called for allowing “Jews the right to live anywhere in the special city of Jerusalem.” Furthermore, President George H.W. Bush agreed in 1992 to the “natural growth” of settlement population. The Republican Party position didn’t change until the 1996 election, when Republicans applauded “the Republican Congress for enacting legislation to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel” and called for the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem by May 1999. Since the 1996 election, the Republican Party has recognized Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.

So, why was there so much controversy over the language on Jerusalem in 2012? I was told in Charlotte by a platform committee member that the exclusion of Jerusalem from the 2012 platform was a slight to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. (Apparently, President Obama didn’t get the memo that you are unlikely to win any policy position battles against AIPAC.) Once the Republicans seized on the opportunity, President Obama was quick to order a change. However, the order didn’t sit well with many delegates. If you watched or listened to the vote at the convention, it was not definitively clear that two-thirds of delegates agreed to the change. It was more like a fifty-fifty split. 

But, in a close election year, presidential politics trumps party position. President Obama and the Democrats cannot afford to lose the Jewish vote to Mitt Romney and the Republicans in such a tight election. While the Democratic Party has long held the edge on Jewish voters, the Jewish community is certainly not a monolith and positions regarding Israel vary among community members.  Although Jewish voters tend to be socially liberal, it doesn’t mean their vote can’t swing, at least a little. In the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan set the record for Republican presidents since the end of World War I, garnering 39 percent of the Jewish vote. According to new polling data, President Obama still leads the Jewish vote by a margin of 59-35 percent, but that is a dramatic decline from the 78 percent of the Jewish vote he received in 2008. Mitt Romney’s positions on Israel, bolstered by his friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, may give the Republicans a long sought-after edge on the Jewish vote in this election.

 

Side by Side Comparison of Party Platform Language on Jerusalem, 1972-2012

 

Democrats

Republicans

1972 platform:

Recognize and support the established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with free access to all its holy places provided to all faiths. As a symbol of this stand, the U.S. Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem...

1972 platform: Jerusalem not mentioned

 

1976 platform:

We recognize and support the established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with free access to all its holy places provided to all faiths. As a symbol of this stand, the U.S. Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

1976 platform: Jerusalem not mentioned

 

1980 platform:

Jerusalem should remain forever undivided, with free access to the holy places for people of all faiths…As stated in the 1976 platform, the Democratic Party recognizes and supports "the established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with free access to all its holy places provided to all faiths. As a symbol of this stand, the U.S. Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."

1980 platform:

Republicans believe that Jerusalem should remain an undivided city with continued free and unimpeded access to all holy places by people of all faiths.

1984 platform:

Jerusalem should remain forever undivided with free access to the holy places for people of all faiths. As stated in the 1976 and 1980 platforms, the Democratic Party recognizes and supports the established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As a symbol of this stand, the U.S. Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

1984 platform:

We believe that Jerusalem should remain an undivided city with free and unimpeded access to all holy places by people of all faiths.

In 1988, Jerusalem was not mentioned in the platform.

1988 platform:

We believe that Jerusalem should remain an undivided city, with free and unimpeded access to all holy places by people of all faiths.

1992 platform:

Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.

1992 platform:

We believe Jerusalem should remain an undivided city, with free and unimpeded access to all holy places by people of all faiths. No genuine peace would deny Jews the right to live anywhere in the special city of Jerusalem.

1996 platform:

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.

1996 platform:

We applaud the Republican Congress for enacting legislation to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. A Republican administration will ensure that the U.S. Embassy is moved to Jerusalem by May 1999.

2000 platform:

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.

2000 platform:

The United States has a moral and legal obligation to maintain its Embassy and Ambassador in Jerusalem. Immediately upon taking office, the next Republican president will begin the process of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel's capital, Jerusalem.

2004 platform:

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.

2004 platform:

Republicans continue to support moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel's capital, Jerusalem.

2008 platform:

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.

2008 platform:

We support the vision of two democratic states living in peace and security: Israel, with Jerusalem as its capital, and Palestine.

2012 platform:

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.

2012 platform, Under a section titled, “Our Unequivocal Support of Israel”:

We support Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state with secure, defensible borders; and we envision two democratic states—Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine—living in peace and security.

 

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