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Jerusalem’s lot
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Jerusalem’s lot

Following the flap over the Democratic National Committee’s bone-headed treatment of its Jerusalem plank, it’s instructive to look at the Republicans’ version and how it has morphed in recent years.

The comparison suggests why the Jerusalem issue is a bipartisan booby trap.

In 2004, the Republican platform had this fairly straightforward position on Jerusalem: “Republicans continue to support moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem.”

OK, very little ambiguity in the phrase “Israel’s capital, Jerusalem,” or in the reference to moving the embassy (although why the embassy had not yet been moved, despite a Republican president in the White House, hints at the complexities to come).

The 2008 platform introduces a new massaging of the message, little noted at the time. The section on Israel includes these two sentences, separated by a call on the Palestinians, to reject terror and embrace democracy: “We support the vision of two democratic states living in peace and security: Israel, with Jerusalem as its capital, and Palestine.… We support Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.”

Two changes are obvious. The first is that the blunt “Israel’s capital, Jerusalem” has been replaced by a “vision” of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. The phrase defers the issue to a future that includes a “Palestine.” If that could have been perceived as a slight weakening of Republican resolve, the double references to an “undivided capital” appear to return the issue to the present tense.

Now we come to the 2012 platform, which tweaks the 2008 version: “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.” Gone, however, are references to an “undivided capital” and any reference to moving the embassy. Columnist Douglas Bloomfield was one of the few to notice the change, suggesting the “Republicans also softened their language.”

If so, there’s a big difference, politics wise, between softening the Jerusalem message and leaving it out altogether, as the Democrats seem to have done.

And yet platform-crafters in both parties appear to be wrestling with the same dilemma: the gap between what candidates pledge on Jerusalem and official United States policy on its status. Since 1967, every administration has maintained that the status of Jerusalem should be subject to negotiated settlement. Despite lawsuits and legislation, Republican and Democratic administrations have clung to the waivers that defer action on moving the embassy or acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Nevertheless, every candidate, Democrat and Republican, pledges to do so. Both parties have indulged in this hypocrisy since at least 1972. That led to last week’s awkward exchange between reporters and acting State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell. Following up on DNC claims that the president himself asked for the return of platform language stating “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel,” reporters tried various ways to get Ventrell to say his bosses agreed. Instead, he kept returning to the boilerplate: Jerusalem is an issue “that should be resolved in final-status negotiations.”

If history is any guide, the question is not what a candidate will do once in office but how and how much he is willing to pander — and how much we’re willing to pretend that these semantic games matter. We know that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and will remain so no matter what kind of deal is struck with the Palestinians. What’s strange is that neither party has come up with anything as famously equivocal as Henry Kissinger’s formulation in the 1972 Shanghai Communique: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China, and that Taiwan is part of China.”

The Republican platform’s position on Jerusalem — “envisioning” a future with Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — comes close, in that it assuages Jewish voters without committing a candidate to anything.

Of course, circumstances on the ground make a mockery of our communal debates over language and floor votes and which Democrat deserves blame for the platform debacle. As veteran Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller wrote in reference to the subject, the debate over Jerusalem has never seemed less relevant. “There are no prospects for reviving serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,” he writes. “Taking positions on Jerusalem is a thought experiment now. And most smart politicians understand this.”

As if to underline Miller’s despair, news came last week that bitterlemons.org — a web site founded by Israelis and Palestinians that was devoted to tough dialogue between both sides — was shutting down. Its Israeli coeditor, Yossi Alpher, explained it was done in by “fatigue” on the part of donors and contributors. “There is no peace process and no prospect of one,” writes Alpher. “Here and there, writers from the region who used to favor us with their ideas and articles are now begging off, undoubtedly deterred by the revolutionary rise of intolerant political forces in their countries or neighborhood.”

Perhaps smart politicians understand this completely, which is why they prefer to talk about thought experiments.

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