September 5, 2012

Obama, Democrats on defense over party platform language on Jerusalem

In drafting its party platform, Democrats left out language that asserts Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and will remain so, sparking top party leaders to go on defense on an issue critical among its most loyal constituencies: Jewish voters.

In damage control over Israel, the Democratic Party abruptly reversed course Wednesday and reinstated language that asserts Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state. The party also reinstated language affirming the God-given potential of Americans.

The changes were made at the direct request of President Barack Obama, said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Broward County lawmaker who chairs the Democratic National Committee.

“The president intervened out of a personal opinion that Jerusalem should be recognized as the state of Israel, recognizing that this was in the 2008 platform,” Wasserman Schultz said.

“We already had a 100 percent pro-Israel platform,” she said, “but the president wanted to make sure there was even more clarity in it.”

The platform was revised after withering assaults from Republicans, who questioned Obama’s committment to Israel.

The changes, made by voice vote on the convention floor, didn’t come easy. Few knew they were happening. None of the rank-and-file Democrats had a clue about Obama’s involvement.

The changes were opposed loudly by some delegates, some of whom held "Arab American Democrats" signs on the convention floor as they yelled “no.”

Those delegates said they opposed the language about Jerusalem specifically. And they didn’t like the last-minute procedural move that caught them off-guard.

“Obviously, it makes me feel a little frustrated that this is not being truly discussed in a fair just way,” said Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim-American woman elected to the Michigan state Legislature.

Many didn’t even know the changes had been made on the floor of the convention — which came straight from the top of the party: President Obama, according to the Associated Press.

The last-minute decision followed a day of Democrats defending the policy — and marred an otherwise triumphant convention opener where they showcased minorities.

In drafting the platform, the committee left out language that asserts Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and will remain it — a position that had been in the party’s 2008 document.

The language was stripped this year by a vote of the platform committee, Tlaib said, who’s on the rules committee for the convention. She said the reversal was made because of “pushback from the Jewish community.”

Early Wednesday, before the language changed, Republicans pounced, while Democrats went on defense as they realized they’d caused problems with a key constituency: Jewish voters.

“No one has been stronger on Israel than President Obama,” Schultz, the Broward County lawmaker who is Jewish told a gaggle of reporters Wednesday morning.

Explaining the foreign-policy nuances of the party’s posture and goals wasn’t how Wasserman Schultz had planned to spend the morning after First Lady Michelle Obama gave a much-heralded speech at the convention.

But the issue of Israel and Jewish voters — a key Democratic interest group in swing-state Florida — dominated the discussion. Just days before, at his party’s convention in Tampa, Republican Mitt Romney had accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus.”

The Jerusalem omission was a sign, Republicans said, that Romney was right.

Said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul: “Mitt Romney has consistently stated his belief that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Although today’s voice vote at the Democratic National Convention was unclear, the Democratic Party has acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. President Obama has repeatedly refused to say the same himself. Now is the time for President Obama to state in unequivocal terms whether or not he believes Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”

Wasserman Schultz, who represents one of the most-Jewish districts in Congress, had to grapple with another flap: The accusation from a conservative newspaper columnist that she had quoted U.S. ambassador to Israel Michael Oren saying that Republicans were dangerous to Israel.

She disputed the account in the Examiner newspaper, and warned that Republicans shouldn’t put "love of party before love of Israel." Support for Israel is one area where both parties have traditionally been in solidarity, she said.

The Washington Post, parsing her language in a fact check, gave her four Pinocchios for asserting that she had been misquoted. PolitiFact gave her a Pants On Fire.

"They ripped one line out of what I said and left the rest so it appeared as though I was saying something that I wasn’t," she said. "In fact, that line is the opposite of what I always say, and I will say it again: It is dangerous to turn Israel into a political football, as the Republicans are trying to do. It is dangerous for Israel."

Wasserman Schultz and other Democrats say Republicans are having it both ways when it comes to party platforms.

After all, the Republican platform didn’t explicitly call for the reversal of Obama-era changes concerning another foreign-policy touchstone for Florida voters: Cuba. Obama loosened travel restrictions, but Republicans never called for reversing them.

What’s more, Romney’s running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, repeatedly voted against the Cuban embargo in his early years in Congress. Wasserman Schultz, a Cuba hardliner, helped muster enough Democratic votes to kill one anti-embargo measure supported by Ryan.

“Paul Ryan has had no purifying vote on Cuba,” Wasserman Schultz said. “He’s squishy when it comes to Cuba.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, of Miami and chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said Ryan had come to support the embargo. And, she said, it wasn’t fair to hold Romney accountable to a party platform that few people read.

Romney had promised to take a hardline stance on Cuba and, like many Republican and Democratic candidates before, said he’ll support recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a touchy subject with Palestinians and the Arab world.

The United States has maintained that Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital is a matter of negotiation; the U.S. embassy remains in Tel Aviv.

When the Democratic party-plank omitted references to Jerusalem, a Romney campaign spokesman said the Democratic Party was signaling "a radical shift in its orientation, away from Israel."

The Republican Jewish Coalition announced Wednesday it would run a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer to "send a special message to President Obama and the Democratic Party during the Democratic National Convention."

"Does the document accurately mirror Barack Obama’s views?" asked former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, Romney’s liaison to the Jewish community. Given that his top aides have said that the platform reflects his policies, and given that his official White House spokesman has also refused to name Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that is now an urgent question to which the American people deserve an immediate and unequivocal response."

Democrats worked to mend fences with their Jewish voters — although the first night of the convention also featured a speech about Israel from former Florida U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, the Obama campaign’s liaison to the Jewish community and one of the people who helped craft the platform.

Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had a strained relationship since Obama took office and criticized Israel’s building of settlements in the West Bank.

Wexler argued Wednesday that the Democratic platform as written addresses Israel’s chief security concerns, particularly the threat of a nuclear Iran. It has been the policy of every administration since 1967 that Jerusalem’s status should be determined in final negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Wexler said. He also said that Republicans, too, had changed their platform on Israel.

"It’s a totally false issue," Wexler said. "The language that is in the Democratic platform this year is 100 percent pro-Israel language."

Yet the issue dogged top Democrats, who don’t want to see their lead narrow among Jewish voters.

Jewish voters traditionally vote heavily for Democratic presidential candidates, but Republicans have been pushing hard for their support, particularly in Florida. Obama received about 74 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, and polls suggest support is just as strong this year.

One reason for the strong support: Most Jewish voters don’t see Israel as their top concern and tend to be among the most-socially liberal constituencies.

However, in swing-state Michigan, Arab-American voters are influential. And Democrats like Tlaib feel let down. She said it’s tough for Arabs just to visit Jerusalem, which contains the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque.

It took three voice votes for the delegates to pass the changes proposed by the chairman of the committee that drafted the platform, including the change that restored "God" to the platform.

"As an ordained United Methodist minister, I am here to attest that our faith and belief in God is central to the American story, and informs the values we’ve expressed in our party’s platform," said former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. "In addition, President Obama recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and our party’s platform should as well."

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com. Erika Bolstad can be reached at ebolstad@mcclatchydc.com

Lesley Clark and David Lightman of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Related content



Editor's Choice Videos