Kicking around the Jerusalem football

Kicking around the Jerusalem football

Sen. Ted Cruz is the latest in a long line of politicians to introduce legislation to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As with prior bills, this one is not really about Israel or Jerusalem or the embassy. It’s about campaign politics for a man with an eye on the White House. It’s pure political pandering. 

For the 35 years that I’ve been watching it has been a ploy by the opposition to embarrass the party in the White House by showing it is the better friend of Israel. This time it’s the Republicans’ turn but it really makes no difference which party is responsible, they both do it shamelessly and for the same reasons. 

Jerusalem is a political football both parties like to toss around. In 1980, it was Republicans trying to portray Jimmy Carter, in his race for a second term, as being unfriendly to Israel. As if he needed any help. Four years later the Democrats tried to return the favor for Ronald Reagan. He actually wound up losing a huge chunk of the Jewish vote he’d won four years earlier.

In the 1990s the ball shifted sides. 

In Bill Clinton’s first term, Congress — led by Sen. Bob Dole, who would be the 1996 Republican presidential candidate, and Speaker Newt Gingrich, with his own presidential ambitions — offered a Jerusalem bill. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin privately thought the bill was a mistake but couldn’t say so publicly; the Republicans had backing from both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Netanyahu.

Clinton threatened to veto the legislation unless it contained presidential waiver authority in cases of national interest. He exercised that authority every six months as required, and Republicans and some hardline Jewish activists excoriated him every time for being hostile to Israel. 

But when George W. Bush issued 16 consecutive waivers over the next eight years there was barely a peep from the same folks who had been vilifying his predecessor. 

With a Democrat back in the White House, Republicans started talking about removing the waiver authority. Just before the 2012 election then-Rep. (now Senator) Dean Heller introduced a version similar to the one he and Cruz dropped in last week. He got only 14 sponsors and it died in committee. But with the GOP again controlling both chambers a new push is in the works.

It’s all part of the Republicans’ “We love Israel more” strategy, which is based on a single issue approach to the Jews and friends of Israel. They understand they can’t reverse the overwhelming Jewish support for Democratic candidates (70 percent in November’s election) because of their domestic record no matter how hawkishly pro-Israel they sound, but that’s not their real target. 

Cruz, a Tea Party favorite, is a good example of why it won’t bring votes, but that doesn’t mean that this legislation can’t be very profitable for him and other Republicans. 

If Cruz’s mandatory legislation became law it would not only virtually destroy any chance for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal but do irreparable harm to Israel’s relations with Arab and Muslim states — which are more extensive than are publicly known — as well as U.S. relations with those countries. 

For some of Cruz’s most ardent supporters that probably sounds like a good idea. That includes casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who spent around $100 million helping Republican candidates in the 2012 election and is an outspoken opponent of Palestinian statehood. He is also a major Netanyahu supporter. 

Another is the Zionist Organization of America, which shares the views of Adelson, a major contributor to the group. ZOA recently honored Cruz and features quotes from him in its fundraising appeals. Adelson lives in Heller’s state of Nevada and is a major backer of the senator’s campaigns.

The firebrand Texas senator and Tea Party favorite has been actively courting Jewish donors in preparation for an expected presidential run. He is scheduled to address a Passover getaway for Orthodox Jews at the ritzy St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort near Los Angeles where an aide said he will also be doing some fundraising of his own. What a surprise.

Another goal is to force Obama to veto the bill and to put Democrats (only one of the 29 Jews in this Congress is a Republican) in a difficult position.

The Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2015 isn’t really about the location of the American embassy. I’ve never seen an Israeli government make any serious push to have the embassy relocated, although naturally all would like to see that happen. Israeli leaders have been concerned that if an American embassy were to be built prior to a peace agreement it would most likely be in West Jerusalem, and could be interpreted as U.S. and Israeli support for partitioning the city.

In the highly unlikely event the bill does pass and his veto is overridden, the administration will take the issue to the courts, accusing Congress of usurping presidential constitutional authority.

But the Supreme Court may have a decision affecting the issue long before Cruz’s bill even gets its first vote in the Senate.

Jerusalem is at the heart of Zivitofsky v. Kerry, a case currently before the Court that raises related issues. A 2002 law ordered the State Department to designate Jerusalem, Israel, as the birthplace for U.S. citizens born there, if requested. George W. Bush signed the law but said he would not enforce it because it arrogated executive authority.

 Current practice is to identify the city but without any country designation. The Executive Branch has argued that Congress does not have the authority to make such decisions. The Court’s decision — expected soon — would have a significant impact on legislation like that Cruz is proposing. But it is doubtful even a strong high court decision in favor of the President would deter him. 

The issue is unlikely to die anytime soon because kicking around the Jerusalem football is too tempting to pay attention to the Constitution or the Supreme Court.

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