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Still Dancing Around Jerusalem

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There are times when even the most ardent supporters of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem wish the politicians would just shut up.

Not that they mind it when men like Sen. Barack Obama, the putative Democratic nominee for president, wax lyrical about the Jewish state’s capital. When Obama told the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., earlier this month that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” he was cheered to the echo.

In doing so, Obama was following a long tradition observed by both Republicans and Democrats who have been feeding Jewish audiences the proverbial red meat about this core issue.

Indeed, Obama’s sudden annunciation of a hard line on Jerusalem recalls the decision of former senator Bob Dole – a man who’d previously never evinced much interest in Zionism – to introduce legislation in 1995 requiring the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This happened to coincide with the fact that he was running for president the following year and was hopeful of Jewish contributions, if not votes.

For decades, both parties played this card every four years, putting the same sentiment about the embassy in their platforms. Of course, no president ever elected on such a platform, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom were sympathetic to Israel, ever fulfilled that promise. And though Dole’s bill was passed, it included a poison pill allowing the president to enact a waiver to put off moving the embassy. Both Clinton and President George W. Bush have used that waiver to make sure the embassy stays put.

Due to the fact that the United States has never formally recognized Israel’s hold on its “eternal and indivisible” capital, surely none but the most simple-minded of Israel’s supporters in this country ever thought that the embassy was going anywhere anytime soon. But the ritualistic statements put forward on the issue are considered a measure of good intentions, if nothing else.

Still, Obama’s speech was politically significant. Unlike most of the recent presidential candidates of both major parties, Obama does not have a track record on Israel. And his associations with some anti-Israel foreign-policy wonks, as well as with others considered favorable to the Palestinians, have raised other questions.

Like Bush, who entered the 2000 election with many assuming he was as unsympathetic to the Jewish state as his father, Obama has something to prove. But unlike Bush, who was elected with little Jewish support, Obama cannot afford to let the bad vibes about Israel significantly diminish the usually overwhelming Jewish vote for the Democrats.

That explains the decision to have him verbally wave the blue-and-white flag over Jerusalem. Unfortunately for Obama and Israel, his comments to AIPAC were spoiled within 24 hours when he backtracked on the “undivided” Jerusalem talk after the Palestinian Authority and various Arab nations denounced his stand. So a day after drawing a line in the sand on Israel’s hold on the city, Obama told CNN that while he wanted the city to stay united, “as a practical matter, it would be very difficult to execute.”

Later, a spokesperson tried to explain that what Obama was against was a return to a division via “barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-67.”

Well, I should hope not. During the 19 years prior to the unification of the city during the 1967 Six-Day War, Jordanian occupation of parts of the city meant no Jew could step foot on Judaism’s holiest places, which were also frequently desecrated.

Obama’s dilemma shows how hard it is for a man who likes the idea that most of the world (which does not share America’s love for Israel) is rooting for him but still wants to assure Jewish Democrats that they can trust him.

Of course, his Republican rival, the presumptive GOP candidate Sen. John McCain, was quick to deride Obama’s flip-flop. But even though Jewish Republicans think they can make hay on this issue, McCain’s stand is that Jerusalem’s status is subject to negotiations – the same, in other words, as both President Bush and Obama. But just to show how experienced a hand he is at working the pro-Israel crowd, McCain added, “we should move our embassy to Jerusalem before anything happens.”

About the Author: Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@commentarymagazine.com.

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