WASHINGTON — America's longtime alliance with Israel was thrust center stage in the presidential campaign Wednesday, with Democrats scrambling to revise their party platform after Republicans pounced on the omission of support for Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.
The backtracking resulted in an unwelcome convention sideshow that drew boos and jeers from some party faithful.
The nonbinding platform adopted in Charlotte on Tuesday dropped the previous expression of support for an undivided Israeli capital in Jerusalem, even as it maintained that the United States has "an unshakable commitment to Israel's security" and detailed a series of steps President Obama has taken to strengthen the relationship over the past four years.
Democratic officials insisted the omission this year was simply a desire to refocus the platform on Obama's accomplishments and goals for a second term — not an attempt to alter the party's position on Israel.
An Obama campaign official said the president personally appealed Wednesday for the reinsertion of the wording about Jerusalem and also, in an unrelated platform matter, for language attesting to the importance of a belief in God in American life. It was not known whether Obama had been involved in crafting the original platform language, but candidates often maintain a distance from the platform, which is not binding on them.
The traditional reference to Jerusalem in both parties' platforms has never actually translated into official government policy because of the diplomatic realities of encouraging Israelis and Palestinians, who make up a large part of the city's population, to find a comprehensive peace. But its omission from Democrats' platform this year provided an opening for Republicans to suggest it showed a lack of support for Israel.
"I find that one more example of Israel being thrown under the bus by the president," Mitt Romney told Fox News Channel on Wednesday. "I think it's a very sad day when we have our best friend in the Middle East, a nation which shares our values, a nation now under extraordinary threat and distress when nations around it like Syria and Egypt are going through tumult of their own."
Others said removing the reference, which has appeared in one form or another in both party platforms for much of the past 40 years — was tantamount to saying Obama does not support Jerusalem as the Israeli capital — an assertion labeled by numerous analysts as unjustified given Obama's official positions.
"When the Democrats decide to pull out of their support of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, we are sending the absolutely wrong message to the world," said US Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican of Utah.
The Obama camp was clearly stung by the criticism and moved Wednesday to reinstate the language from the 2008 platform stating that "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel."
It added: "The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths."
But the voice vote on the convention floor to revise the Jerusalem plank and add a statement dropped from the 2008 platform that government should give "everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential'' — also did not go as planned. The convention chairman, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, called for a vote three times before he declared passage — amid boos from delegates who thought there were enough no votes to deny the revision the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, called the reaction in the hall "shocking."
Democratic officials said the reason language on Jerusalem was not included this year was not only to keep the platform more focused on Obama's successes and goals, but also to avoid prejudicing any outcome of "final status" issues that would have to be decided by the Israelis and the Palestinians. That includes the borders of a Jewish and a Palestinian state.
"It has been the policy of both Republican and Democratic administrations for decades that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be negotiated directly between the two parties, as part of discussions to achieve a two-state solution that secures the Jewish state and homeland," said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
An Obama adviser who helped write the platform went a step further, insisting there was "no conspiracy" in the omission, contending that officials decided not to use the 2008 platform as a guide but to instead write a new one that focused on the president's achievements.
The adviser, who was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations, stressed the Democratic platform does discuss the $10 billion in aid Israel has received under the Obama administration, including funds to complete a shield to deflect rocket and missile attacks from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.
He also pointed out that the GOP platform this year omitted its previous pledges to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The Republicans, however, saw the issue as an opening with blocs of influential voters who feel strongly about Israel — and the president moved to close that opening.
David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, a grass-roots organization in Texas, said in a recent interview there is a deep affinity for the Jewish state among voters of various Christian faiths, particularly evangelicals. "The extent to which Governor Romney can demonstrate he is the more steadfast supporter of Israel . . . the better he is going to do," Brog said. "It can benefit him more than people realize."
Indeed, some Middle East analysts scratched their heads at the Democrats' oversight.
"There would have been very little reverberation in maintaining the text," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The administration almost surely attracted more attention by changing the language."
The controversy underscored what some former Israeli officials and policy analysts on Wednesday decried as a troubling trend in recent years: Israel has become a political football in American elections.
Gilead Sher, who served as Israel's chief negotiator during 2000 peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, called the GOP criticism of the Democratic platform "a manipulation of a political sort that has no grounds."
"I fail to see how the issue of Jerusalem in the platform is connected in any way to the security of Israel," Sher said.
Alon Pinkas, formerly Israel's consul general in New York, also accused the GOP of "pandering" on the issue, noting "Both parties effectively have the same policy toward Israel."
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