Capital Confusion: Obama's Broken Promise on Jerusalem Stirs Anger

Capital Confusion: Obama's Broken Promise on Jerusalem Stirs Anger

As Mitt Romney was welcomed in Israel, the Obama administration struggled to explain its position on Israel’s capital. White House spokesman Jay Carney refused to identify Jerusalem as the capital city during a press briefing on Thursday, and the White House transcript of the press briefing included an explanatory note that reiterated the administration’s deliberate ambivalence:

The status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. We continue to work with the parties to resolve this issue and others in a way that is just and fair, and respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Obama had campaigned in 2008 on a promise that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” His administration’s position represents the opposite view. Since taking office, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–all of whom had previously touted their pro-Israel credentials–have objected publicly and vehemently to construction in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, a stance directly at odds with the idea that Jerusalem is Israel’s undivided capital. 

All of Israel’s central government institutions are located in West Jerusalem, on land that lies within Israel’s sovereign and internationally recognized borders. The city was designated as an international city under the 1947 partition plan approved by the UN, but was divided when Jordanian forces seized East Jerusalem in 1948, destroying the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and expelling its residents. 

In 1967, with Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, the city was reunified. Palestinians continue to claim Jerusalem as their capital, and most international embassies to Israel are located in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. However, Jerusalem is functionally and symbolically the capital, and the U.S. Congress has passed resolutions indicating that the U.S. embassy must be moved to Jerusalem–a move that administrations of both parties have resisted for fear of disrupting the peace process.

Obama’s promise in 2008 brought comfort to eager Democratic supporters who considered him shaky on the issue compared to Clinton. His declaration of support for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, however, enraged Palestinians, and his campaign attempted to walk back the promise with an absurd, hair-splitting explanation that Obama might allow the city to be politically divided, but not physically divided. Obama reverted to a position that Jerusalem’s final status would be negotiated by the parties–enough to satisfy Palestinians, while pro-Israel Democrats decided they had heard enough for Obama to pass muster.

Now, some pro-Israel groups are hitting back–including the Emergency Committee on Israel, which released an advertisement highlighting Obama’s broken promise on Jerusalem (below). The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) also released an ad, featuring “Michael,” a Democrat who had voted for Obama and raised money for his campaign but who would be voting for Romney because of Obama’s broken promises on Israel. The RJC described the ad as the first in a series of forthcoming commercials.

In 2011, Obama called for peace to be negotiated on the basis of the 1967 borders–a position that not only angered Israelis but also would, if implemented, make an undivided Jerusalem impossible. That gaffe led to an unprecedented public rebuke from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office.

In another gaffe, Obama claimed in a signing ceremony on July 27–the eve of Romney’s arrival in Israel–that he was increasing aid to Israel by $70 billion. In fact, the aid–passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress–amounted to $70 million.


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