Democrats backpedal and change language on Jerusalem

Reuters News

9/5/2012 5:45:45 PM - Reuters News

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - Democrats resurrected language in their party platform on Wednesday declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel after President Barack Obama objected and Republicans accused them of showing weak support for the longtime U.S. ally.

Chaos ruled on the floor of the Democratic National Convention briefly as delegates and convention leaders were forced to call a voice vote three times to reinstate the language in an embarrassing turnaround.

The party also restored wording mentioning God. Democrats changed the platform language to say government should help people "make the most of their God-given potential."

But the most controversial change was about Israel. Campaign officials said it was ordered by Obama himself to reflect his own personal views.

"The news coverage made the president aware of the issue today," one campaign official said. "He directed his staff to deal with it immediately. The final language is consistent with the president's own positions."

Obama was also opposed to the God language being removed, the official said.

Presidents from both parties over the years have declared their support for making Jerusalem the capital of Israel, but have never taken the step to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv out of a belief that the future of Jerusalem should be decided through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Still, declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel is a powerful statement of support for the most important U.S. ally in the Middle East and to do otherwise risks hurting a president's support from the powerful Jewish-American community.

"We welcome reinstatement to the Democratic platform of the language affirming Jerusalem as Israel's capital," the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC said in a statement.

"Together, these party platforms reflect strong bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship."

ROMNEY AND JERUSALEM

Obama's opponent in the November 6 election, Republican Mitt Romney, is eager to drive a wedge between Obama and Jewish voters.

He traveled to Israel in July and received a warm welcome from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had a cool relationship with Obama since the president proposed returning Israel to its pre-1967 borders.

Hoping to make an issue out of the platform language flap, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Obama needs to state "in unequivocal terms whether or not he believes Jerusalem is Israel's capital."

"Mitt Romney has consistently stated his belief that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel," she said.

Four years ago, during the last presidential campaign, the Democratic Party's platform had said "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel."

But this year that language was dropped to try to demonstrate a more even-handed position in the long-running Arab-Israeli dispute.

To reinstate the language, Democratic convention chair Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles mayor, had to call for a voice vote three times and looked uncertain as to how to proceed when the "no" votes seemed to be louder than the "yes" ones.

Eventually, he declared the measure had been approved by a two-thirds vote, prompting some shaking of heads among those in the crowd who had supported leaving the Jerusalem language out.

Obama stated his support for Jerusalem being the country's capital during a speech to AIPAC before he was president, a campaign official noted.

The status of Jerusalem is fiercely contested between the Palestinians and Israel, which seized eastern Jerusalem during the 1967 war, and is among the thorny "final status" issues to be determined in any peace negotiations.

Most countries, including the United States, have not recognized Israel's declaration of Jerusalem as its capital and keep their embassies in Tel Aviv.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on the Air Force One flight that brought Obama to Charlotte that Obama had been consistent on the issue.

"The position on Jerusalem held by this administration, this president, is exactly the same position that presidents and administrations have held since 1967 - presidents of both parties, administrations of both parties," he said.

Republican President George W. Bush promised in a speech to AIPAC in 2000 that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as soon as he took office, but he never did.

Obama too has continued to sign a presidential waivers putting off the move, which would go against the international community's overwhelming refusal to recognize Israel's annexation of Arab East Jerusalem captured in the 1967 war.

(additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell and Alden Bentley)