Jerusalem Syndrome

When I first read that the Democratic platform said nothing about Jerusalem, I was quite impressed. Quietly, by omission, the party had brought a moment of honesty to the fantasy-ridden American political discussion about Israel. 

Alas, honesty is ephemeral. Republican attacks, news editors eager for a daily controversy, and Democratic wimpishness have defeated it. In Wednesday night's voice vote, the Democrats added some words to the platform: "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel ... It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths." The first part is an implied promise that after re-election, Barack Obama will officially recognize Jerusalem's status as capital and move the U.S. embassy there. The second piece pretends that Jerusalem is presently united and accessible to all. 

This is hallucinatory for at least three reasons: First, Jerusalem is Israel's capital, independent of what is or isn't written in American party platforms. Second, no American administration will formally recognize it as the capital before an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Third, virtually no one in America will decide how to vote based on this issue.

Listen, folks, I live in Jerusalem: not the city described in church hymns or old Hebrew songs, but the real place, where the streets aren't swept often enough, where the schools are under-budgeted, where the dust-heavy overheated wind from the desert could make a saint punch her grandmother. Believe me: It's Israel's capital. Nearly all of Israel's government ministries are here, which is good, because they are the main source of paychecks. The parliament is here, and the prime minister's residence, and the demonstrations in front of the parliament and prime minister's residence. Foreign embassies are in and around Tel Aviv, but when prime ministers and presidents visit, they come here, and their motorcades clog our streets and make our cabbies curse. Using "Tel Aviv" as a synonym for the Israeli government, as still happens in foreign media, is like using "New York" to refer to the American government.

But undivided? Please. That's another sentiment for speeches. It's true Israel annexed East Jerusalem after conquering it in 1967, and removed the barbed wire that once ran through the middle of town. But practically, Arab East Jerusalem is a place apart, the best-treated piece of occupied territory, but not Israel. For Palestinian Muslims, getting to the major holy site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, depends on whether Israeli security forces expect quiet or trouble. This Ramadan, men over 40, women and children were allowed to come from the West Bank to pray. That was a major improvement, but not free access.

Yes, the refusal of foreign governments to put their embassies in West Jerusalem is silly and inconsistent. For all other purposes, the world treats the 1949 armistice boundaries, or Green Line, as Israel's border. West Jerusalem is inside the Green Line. Foreign officials don't question whether Nazareth or Beersheba are part of Israel, even though they weren't assigned to the Jewish state in the 1947 U.N. partition plan. But the standard rationale for treating Jerusalem's status as uncertain is that the partition plan designated it as an internationally ruled "corpus separatum." Neither America nor anyone else is consistent on this point, either. In a last blast of imperialism, the corpus separatum was mapped to avoid Jewish or Muslim rule over Christian sites. It included Bethlehem and part of the Judean Desert where the Israeli settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim now stands. But the world treats Bethlehem and Ma'aleh Adumim as part of the occupied West Bank, because they are outside the Green Line. 

So let's live with inconsistency. Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem has discouraged other countries from belatedly acknowledging West Jerusalem's solidly Israeli status. Governments fear, reasonably, that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital would be misread—and misrepresented by Israel—as recognizing the annexation. Besides, as the one absolutely honest line added to the Democratic platform states, "The parties [Israel and the Palestinians] have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations."

A final status peace treaty will draw a border through Jerusalem that the world will accept. If you want the world to say out loud that Jerusalem is Israel's capital, support a two-state solution. Before that, no American president will formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital or move the embassy. George W. Bush was no more willing to do so than Barack Obama has been. I suspect that if Mitt Romney is elected, he will be absolutely irresponsible about cutting taxes on the rich and ballooning the deficit—but I don't think he is reckless enough to move the American embassy to Jerusalem before a peace agreement. Doing so would remove the last shred of American credibility in the Arab world. It might very well ignite a new intifada, which—trust me—would not be healthy for those of us who live in Jerusalem.

How many Americans will vote based on what the Democratic platform says about the Jerusalem? You can count them on your thumbs. This may be the most ideologically stark American election since 1932, if not since 1860. Most American Jews will vote for Obama. If they are worried about Israel, they will notice that Obama has upped funding for Israeli missile defense, vetoed U.N. resolutions criticizing Israel, and kept Benjamin Netanyahu from launching a disastrous attack on Iran. The minority of Jews who support Romney don't care if the Democrats put the entire Israeli national anthem in their platform, in Hebrew. Most evangelicals will vote Romney, and are similarly unconcerned about whether "Jerusalem"—or "God"—is in the Democratic platform. 

Omitting sweet nothings about Jerusalem from the platform was a quiet Kinsley gaffe, an inopportune attack of candor. Having recovered, the Democrats have paid fealty to fantasy. We may now return to the regularly scheduled furies of this campaign.

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