The morning after he secured the Democratic nomination, Senator Obama appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and made a surprisingly strong statement about the future of Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” he said to thunderous applause. Israelis and their supporters in the United States responded warmly to a bold, unequivocal proclamation that went well beyond the positions of the Bush or Clinton administrations – positions which have always endorsed key Israeli concessions on Jerusalem. .
Within a week, the Palestinians and various foreign policy commentators denounced the new Obama approach, and the candidate hastily retreated from his prior declaration. His subsequent equivocation and undeniable confusion on an issue of profound international importance conforms to the candidate’s already well-established pattern of offering rousing words that remain utterly unconnected to substantive policy.
On reflection, even many Friends of Israel who initially applauded Obama’s speech now see two reasons to question his position:
1. He Didn’t Mean It
Within hours of his AIPAC speech, Senator (“Can’t I just eat my waffle?”) Obama began to waffle on its most controversial passage.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had already reacted with surprising forcefulness concerning his reference to “undivided Jerusalem.” “This statement is totally rejected,” he announced to the world press. “We will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as its capital.” Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qeri sounded a similar note. “No Jerusalem, no agreement,” he said.
On CNN on Thursday (after his Wednesday speech), Senator Obama faced questions about the angry reaction from the Arab world and whether his comments indicated that Palestinians had no claim to Jerusalem. “Well, obviously it’s going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues,” he said – clearly abandoning the “must remain undivided” formulation of the day before. He told CNN that he still supported a unified Israeli Jerusalem but suddenly acknowledged that this might prove an unattainable goal. “My belief is that, as a practical matter, it would be very difficult to execute,” he said.
Why, then, make the reference in the midst of a high profile speech? Did Obama’s ringing declaration signify anything at all other than a handy-dandy applause line for the nation’s most influential pro-Israel organization?
Forty-eight hours after Obama’s triumphal AIPAC appearance, Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, told the New York Times of his struggle to comprehend the candidate’s words. “My organization and constituents were very excited when we heard him on Wednesday making what seemed to our ears to be a very clear and declarative statement, something different from what he had said before, but which he is now circling back towards in his clarifying statements yesterday and today.”
Morton A. Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) sounded even more disenchanted. “With Barack Obama and his campaign watering down his statement for an undivided Jerusalem, one must question whether his initial remark was simply meant to mislead Jewish voters and Israel supporters by not stating his true beliefs on this issue.”
2. He’s Wrong to Think It’s America’s Call.
From the outset, the Obama formulation should have troubled all those who believe in Israeli self-determination –the one principle above all others on which the Jewish state’s survival most obviously depends. The candidate’s glib sound-bite – “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided” –presumes that the President of the United States, not the leaders and people of Israel, gets to decide the fate of King David’s city.
The appalling aspect of this latest Barack gaffe involves his apparent ignorance that the question of an “undivided” Jerusalem remains intensely controversial within Israel itself --with virtually all the Israeli left committed to some mechanism for splitting or sharing the city with the Palestinian Authority. For instance, former Prime Minister (and current Defense Minister) Ehud Barak agreed in 2000 to give the Palestinians control of all of East Jerusalem, including the Old City (containing sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Moslems). Had Yasser Arafat agreed to the deal, the Clinton administration and the Israelis appeared not only willing – but eager – to divide the city.
Like most other right-wingers in Israel and the United States, I view such eagerness as a form of madness – but not so mad or menacing in the long run as Obama’s suggestion that the American government gets to make life or death decisions for Israel. While he currently claims that right in order to push an appropriate hard line (offending his own natural allies on the Israeli left), it’s worth noting that the United States almost always tries to influence Israel toward weaker positions, not a stronger ones -- urging endless and painful unilateral concessions, with only meaningless Palestinian promises in return.
If Obama had recognized this history in his speech he still could have drawn a warm response from his audience without the need for subsequent clarification, apology and waffling. The right formulation would have been: “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the American government must never try to force its division.” This sort of statement recommends an American policy without presuming to dictate Israeli decisions. On the other hand, Obama’s clumsy intrusion into Israel’s domestic disputes (not to mention the ongoing—and probably useless – negotiations with the Palestinians) unwittingly slights the very idea of Israeli sovereignty and self-determination.
John McCain, on the other hand, understands the distinction between decisions of our own government and the sovereign responsibilities of our allies. “We should move our embassy to Jerusalem before anything else happens,” he told the press in reaction to Obama’s speech. The Republican candidate alluded to the outrageous situation in which the U.S. (like most other nations) bows to Arab pressure and maintains its embassy in the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem, the nation’s capital since its founding. McCain then quickly added: “The subject of Jerusalem itself will be addressed in negotiations by the Israeli government and people.”
In other words, there’s an important separation between American leaders making American policy (like where we will place our embassy) and Israeli leaders making Israeli policy (like what concessions – if any – to make on Jerusalem).
We observe similar distinctions, by the way, in the Medved family. My brother Jonathan (who chose to make his life in Jerusalem nearly twenty years ago and has two sons currently performing their military service in Israel) gets to sound off all he wants regarding the right policy for his government. I live and raise my kids and pay absurd amounts of taxes to the government of my native land, the United States – so I get to speak on the radio (and elsewhere) about the political choices of my country. When it comes to Israeli domestic politics, I try to keep quiet and defer to my brother—he lives less than five miles from a potential “Palestinian Jerusalem,” so his stake in that argument counts much more than mine.
The Destructive Pattern
The most disturbing aspect of the Obama bumble regarding Jerusalem involves its exposure of the core weakness of his campaign: the huge gap between compelling style and empty substance, and the enormous distance between inspiring words and any practical policies to achieve his noble goals.
Speaking to ecstatic acolytes at monster rallies, or even addressing 7,000 pro-Israel activists in Washington, the Democratic candidate makes a great impression. But what will he do to implement his commitments? In his famous “Race Speech” in Philadelphia, he said he could never “disown” Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and then six weeks later he distinctively disowned him. He praised Trinity United Church of Christ for its warmth and community service – then delivered an expedient resignation because of the guest sermon of another old friend, Michael Pfleger. He told a CNN debate audience he would agree to face-to-face meetings with the leaders of Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Syria in his first year in office, then explained it might not be the first year, the meetings might not be face-to-face, and maybe it wouldn’t be those leaders.
Most recently, he describes Jerusalem’s “undivided status” as an imperative and then the next day acknowledges “as a practical matter, it would be very difficult to execute.”
The Jewish community (where Gallup shows McCain drawing an unexpectedly strong 35%) has begun to learn about the Illinois Senator’s slippery and deceptive rhetorical habits, and one can only hope that in subsequent weeks the rest of the country will receive the same lessons.