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Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall
Debbie Wasserman Schultz

The Israel question

Campaign 2012 | By parrying over their party platform this week, Democrats add to the confusion over U.S. policy in the Middle East

Halfway through the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week, party leaders found themselves backtracking on an issue few inside the Time Warner Cable Arena realized was igniting controversy across the country. But while the party's statements over Israel seemed resolved by convention end, much confusion remains about Obama administration and party policy toward the Middle East.

The original Democratic Party platform, passed by the convention Monday evening, dropped any mention of support for Israel. In 2008 the platform also had committed presidential candidate Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats "to isolate Hamas until it renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel's right to exist, and abides by past agreements." That language was gone in 2012, along with references to Jerusalem as Israel's capital that have been boilerplate in party platforms for decades.

As Jewish and Israeli media, along with pro-Israel groups in the United States, began asking, "What happened?" the Democratic leadership went on the defensive. Unnamed sources involved in writing the platform told the Jewish news service JTA they did not know how the language had been dropped. Former Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, Jewish and part of the platform committee, said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) "was present at all public parts of the drafting process." AIPAC denied that was the case.

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On Tuesday, with controversy over the language heating up, Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was quoted in the Washington Examiner saying Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, had told her Republican policies would be "dangerous" for Israel. She denied the quote, but the Examiner produced audio of her talk (see the clip below, which prompted a memorable Washington Post headline, "Debbie Wasserman Schultz gets four Pinocchios" but no apology or retraction from Schultz).

Then Oren himself spoke up - highly unusual for a diplomat. He issued a statement Tuesday saying, "I categorically deny that I ever characterized Republican policies as harmful to Israel. Bipartisan support is a paramount national interest for Israel, and we have great friends on both sides of the aisle."

By Wednesday, with embarrassment building, President Obama intervened, and language concerning Israel with Jerusalem as its capital was inserted into the 2012 platform at his instruction. But the prevailing reports that the Democratic Party had "acknowledged Israel and God" were somewhat exaggerated. (Download a PDF of the revised Democratic Party platform.)

First, God. The revised party platform has one mention of God: "We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential."

The Republican Party platform mentions God 12 times - prominently reaffirming the Pledge of Allegiance and opposing court challenges to its "under God" phrase. It also reaffirms that "our rights come from God, are protected by government. …" (Download a PDF of the Republican Party platform.)

On Israel. The Democratic platform now states the party's "unshakable commitment to Israel's security," pledges to cooperate on Israel's defense and to "a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples." It says, "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. 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."

Still missing is language about Hamas and terrorism. In 2008 the Democratic platform committed "to isolate Hamas until it renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel's right to exist, and abides by past agreements." The 2012 platform reads instead, "We will insist that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel's right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to existing agreements."

The Republican platform calls for "two democratic states - Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine - living in peace and security." It also calls the security of Israel "in the vital national interest of the United States." It says Israel should not be expected to negotiate with those pledged to its destruction, and "radical elements like Hamas and Hezbollah must be isolated because they do not meet the standards of peace and diplomacy of the international community."

U.S. policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations in recent decades has reaffirmed Israel's right to exist, and to have Jerusalem as an undivided city. It has reaffirmed Jerusalem as Israel's capital, but bowed to Arab concerns that it also be regarded as a religious site for Muslims and an Arab city by maintaining the U.S. Embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv.

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