Presidents generally love to visit Jerusalem, but hate talking about it. Not the city per se—they’ll happily gush over the beauty, history and intensity of the city. But ask them to identify where they are when they’re in Jerusalem, and you won’t be impressed.
The issue has come up again this week, and got a dose of controversy when the Weekly Standard’s Daniel Halper caught the Obama administration scrubbing photo references to Jerusalem’s location. The photo captions had been changed from “Jerusalem, Israel” to “Jerusalem.” The Washington Jewish Week’s Adam Kredo then noted a perusal of the photo archives of George W. Bush finds Jerusalem unidentified as being in Israel as well. Jennifer Rubin called Elliott Abrams, who objected to the suggestion the Jerusalem policy of the Bush and Obama administrations are comparable. Rubin dismissed the comparison between the two presidents on Israel, generally, as one between the Bad News Bears and the Yankees (Bush is the Yankees here), and she is, of course, correct.
But that obscures the fact that on Jerusalem, presidents have been consistently inconsistent–Democrat and Republican alike. Bush had a rare ability to connect with the Israeli public, to his great credit and that of the people in his administration, Abrams among them. (Many Israelis feel Clinton had this ability as well; everyone remembers “Shalom, chaver” at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral.) But despite the heartfelt speeches—and Bush’s speech on the occasion of Israel’s 60th birthday was truly memorable—on policy American presidents avoid the obvious: someone governs Israel. Kredo is right that Bush administration photographs exclude Jerusalem’s location. There is one batch of photos in which Abu Ghosh is listed as an Israeli city, but Jerusalem (in the very next photo on the same trip) is not.
This latest controversy, by the way, immediately followed the Obama administration’s criticism on Jewish building in Har Homa in Jerusalem. In 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had this to say about Jewish building on Jewish-owned (vacant) land in Har Homa: “Har Homa is a settlement the United States has opposed from the very beginning.” Rice also said that “the United States doesn’t make a distinction” between Jewish building in eastern Jerusalem and in the West Bank.
Does this put the Bush administration on the same level as the Obama administration when it comes to Israel? Of course not. The two, as Rubin says, are at opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact, an argument can be made the two Har Homa controversies aren’t identical either. Bush probably deserves more hakarat hatov on Israel than he often gets, but we don’t do ourselves any favors by pretending this is the beginning–or the end–of the fight over Jerusalem.