Commentary Magazine

Capital Offense

On March 28, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland got into a testy exchange with Associated Press reporter Matt Lee over her refusal to say that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The State Department had issued a press release listing Jerusalem and Israel as separate countries, and Lee wanted to know why. “Well, you know that our position on Jerusalem has not changed,” Nuland said, adding, “It’s got to be resolved through the negotiations between the parties.”

Twice more Lee asked, point-blank, What is the capital of Israel? “Our embassy, as you know, is located in Tel Aviv,” was Nuland’s answer, repeating again that the status of Jerusalem—which has been Israel’s capital since late 1949—can only be determined through negotiations with the Palestinians.

Prior to Nuland’s briefing, the State Department had already reissued the press release in question—removing the word Israel from the document. This hamfisted effort to avoid the controversy simply cast new light on a troubling pattern of the Obama administration’s behavior. For this was not the first time the administration had edited already released documents involving Israel and Jerusalem.

In August 2011, the administration was caught digitally altering archived historical documents of previous White Houses in order to suggest, falsely, that past administrations had had the same policy. The administration had erased parts of publicly available documents in a brazen attempt to trick people into thinking that other administrations had taken positions they had not.

The current overarching controversy regarding Jerusalem is centered on the Supreme Court case Zivotofsky v. Clinton. Menachem Zivotofsky is a U.S. citizen who was born in 2002 in Jerusalem. He and his parents want his birthplace listed as “Israel” on official government documents, such as his passport. Congress instructed relevant agencies to do just that as part of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, passed in 2002. (The statute was meant to override a provision in the State Department’s manual preventing such listings.) The president has instructed those agencies not to list
Israel as the birthplace, arguing that it would prejudice the peace process. This has set up a textbook  separation-of-powers turf war. In late March, the Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing the Zivotofsky family’s case to proceed, overturning a lower court ruling that the courts lack jurisdiction to decide the dispute.

The case has become a proxy battle between the administration’s implicit vision of a Jerusalem divided between Israelis and Palestinians in the context of a final-status peace agreement and the position taken among American Zionists, both Jews and Gentiles, that Israel’s capital must remain undivided under Israeli sovereignty. Some groups filed amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiff, and in support of their view pointed to references to “Jerusalem, Israel” in the captions of photographs stored on the White House website. The argument was that the Obama administration did recognize Jerusalem as being in Israel. So the administration simply erased those captions.

The White House’s tactics sparked accusations of a cover-up. The administration claimed the captions were simply a mistake, and that neither the Obama administration nor any prior administration ever referenced “Jerusalem, Israel” in official documents. The justification for—again, literally—erasing the words Jerusalem, Israel was that they never should have been there to begin with, because no one else had ever used the phrase.

This particular defense—“we’re no worse than or different from previous administrations”—is a traditional one for White Houses. But in this case, it is false. I uncovered several references to “Jerusalem, Israel” throughout the web pages of the George W. Bush presidency and published my findings on Commentary’s website. Politico later found dozens of documents stretching back to the Nixon administration, including the official daily diaries of presidents visiting the city, stamped “Jerusalem, Israel.”

These documents were on archive servers beyond the administration’s control. But there were other servers, including those run by the State Department, that were within the administration’s reach. The next question was, naturally, Did any of those provide a reference to “Jerusalem, Israel”?

Yes and no. There had been pre-Obama documents on the State Department’s servers that mentioned “Jerusalem, Israel.” Two documents listing the locations of American consulates, one from 2002 and one from 2003, placed the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem in “Israel.” Some time after the controversy began in 2011, somebody went back to those documents and scrubbed them to read only “Jerusalem.” A search on the piquantly named Internet Wayback Machine, which periodically captures time-stamped snapshots of websites, quickly confirmed as much.

Thus, while some administration officials were telling reporters and the public that there were no Bush-era documents referencing “Jerusalem, Israel,” other administration officials were busy scrubbing Bush-era documents referencing “Jerusalem, Israel.” Such digital alteration is no small task. Somebody at the State Department had to go back to the original 2002 and 2003 documents, convert them into PDF files, then upload the new ones to the State Department servers under the same file names as the old documents.

This literal erasing of the past is part and parcel of an ongoing effort by Obama officials to rewrite the entire history of the U.S.-Israel “special relationship.” The president and his foreign-policy advisers entered office with the view that a uniquely close relationship between the United States and Israel had proved a hindrance to the advancement of American interests. The president was explicit in this regard during his first meeting with Jewish leaders. Responding to a question about the distance he was creating between the U.S. and Israel, Obama declared that “no daylight” between the two countries had produced “no progress” on the peace process, and that he would be adjusting his foreign policy accordingly.

Obama and his team subsequently pushed the Israelis to make unprecedented diplomatic and security concessions to the Palestinians and worked to undermine Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu domestically and internationally. They demanded a full construction “freeze” in Israeli settlements and that such a freeze be applied to eastern Jerusalem, abandoning previous understandings that had underpinned the 2007 Annapolis peace conference. Obama then insisted the Israelis begin negotiations from the 1949 armistice lines, thereby shrugging off binding assurances given to Israel by the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The president’s policy was a failure. The Palestinians were forced to harden their positions lest they
appear more pro-Israel than the American president, and their upgraded demands became so unreasonable that Obama could no longer push Israel without alienating the strongly pro-Israel American public. The peace process ground to a halt, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, referencing Obama’s hard-line demands on Israel, bitterly complained, “We both went up the tree…he came down with a ladder, and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump.”

And here’s where matters quickly took a turn. Even as it pursued a foreign policy that was by design and intention more hostile to Israel than those of previous administrations, the White House unblinkingly maintained that Obama was more pro-Israel than any other American administration—ever.

“I try not to pat myself too much on the back, but this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration,” the president told a group of Jewish donors in November. In March 2012, just a few weeks before that State Department briefing, Obama complained in an interview with the Atlantic, “Every single commitment I have made to the state of Israel and its security, I have kept….Why is it that despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they’ve had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?”

But the policy he had pursued simply could not support that assertion—nor, critically, was it meant to. Obama had the choice either to maintain the relative intimacy of U.S.-Israel relations during the George W. Bush and Clinton years or to try to convince Americans that history wasn’t what everyone thought it was. The president chose the latter. He changed policy and said he wasn’t changing policy, even though everyone closely involved with making policy then and now knew perfectly well the Obama administration was taking a new course.

In 2010, the administration single-handedly created a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations by demanding that housing construction in parts of Jerusalem be approved only for Arabs, not for Jews. The Israelis were taken aback; of all the ways Obama could pressure the Jewish state, this was a particularly counterproductive one. It allowed the Palestinians not only to pocket a concession, but also to stay away from the negotiating table until the Israelis agreed. But the demand in question was one no Israeli government could accept, as it was a clear violation of Israel’s sovereignty. Even more striking, it was a policy shift in favor of the Palestinians that was advanced by the White House without securing so much as a single concession from Abbas or even an acknowledgment that it was a change beneficial to them.

What during the 2007 Annapolis peace talks came to be known as the “Google Earth test” had long constituted an implicit arrangement, dating back to negotiations in 2002 and the so-called Roadmap in 2003. Construction that occurred within the borders of existing Jewish neighborhoods on disputed lands in order to accommodate “natural growth”—that is, children—was acceptable as part of what came to be known as a “freeze.” Bush officials worked with their Israeli counterparts to create down-to-the-inch maps of existing borders, with one official anonymously describing the process to the New York Times as “taking a string and tying it around a settlement, and prohibiting any construction outside that string.”

But from President Obama on down, administration officials simply asserted there was no such arrangement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that no record or evidence of such an agreement existed. This came as a surprise to Israelis and Bush-era officials. Dov Weissglass, a former aide to Ariel Sharon, recounted how in 2003 he and Sharon (then Israeli prime minister) met with National Security Council staffers Elliott Abrams and Stephen Hadley to codify a definition of “freeze” that permitted natural growth. That definition was then made into explicit policy by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in 2004, and a joint U.S.-Israel committee was convened to evaluate “existing community outlines.” Diplomatic language referring negatively to settlement “expansion” but not to settlement “construction”—used consistently during that period by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair—was entirely consistent with Weissglass’s version of events.

So what was Hillary Clinton doing? She was rewriting recent history, pure and simple, to make it appear as though the administration’s ill-conceived new approach was nothing more than a continuation of an old approach.

The White House’s full “freeze” demand was finally dropped in December 2010. Barely half a year elapsed before Obama again tried to rewrite history and vitiate past U.S.-Israeli agreements. In a May 2011 speech, the president announced that American policy would henceforth hold that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

This was a major shift. Forcing all parties to start from the 1949 armistice lines deprived Israel of the crucial territorial bargaining chips it needed to keep the playing field balanced. It eliminated facts on the ground—more than 60 years of facts—and suggested that Israelis living anywhere beyond the 1949 lines could simply be wished away. Palestinians had been pushing Israel to accept such an arrangement since at least 2008, and Israel had always resisted. Obama took a straightforward “Palestinian goal”—in the parlance of U.S. diplomacy—and instantly turned it into official U.S. policy.

It was a radical departure from binding agreements signed between the United States and Israel. Israel had worked out understandings with the Clinton and Bush administrations over what constituted “defensible borders”—precisely what the new formulation was compromising—and had made functionally irreversible territorial concessions to the Palestinians in order to secure U.S. assent to those lines. Letters provided to Jerusalem in 1997 by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and in 2004 by President Bush, written in exchange for Israeli withdrawals from Hebron and the Gaza Strip, were supposed to have locked in those assurances. Obama reopened a question that was previously settled and reset negotiations, except with Israel, now deprived of territory it had already abandoned.

The administration then fell back on its default explanation: The president’s speech offered “nothing new.” The 1997 and 2004 letters stipulating defensible borders were dispensed with, and Obama’s defenders asserted, with no evidence whatever, that his statements were mere reiterations of either Clinton-era or Bush-era guidelines.

The Center for American Progress, a Democratic Party think tank closely aligned with the White House, published article after article insisting that Obama had merely reiterated long-standing U.S. policy. One such article, headlined “Think Again: Israeli/U.S. Right-Wing Conspire to Undermine Israeli/U.S. Security in the Middle East,” claimed it was Netanyahu, who, in his opposition to the shift, had decided “to repudiate long-standing U.S.” policy on the question. The Christian Science Monitor ran an article headlined “Obama’s speech a ‘historic shift’ on Israel and Palestine? No.” The White House organized a conference call with the Jewish community to make sure that everyone got the message, and President Obama declared a week later that “there was nothing particularly original in [his] proposal; this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations.”

This made no sense, even from Obama’s perspective. The entire purpose of Obama’s May 2011 speech had been to give the Palestinians an incentive to return to the negotiating table by offering them something new. The Clinton framework from 2000 had been built on a notion of “defensible borders” for Israel—lines that relied on three decades of American interpretations of the United Nations Security Council resolution passed in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. They allowed an indefinite Israeli security presence in the Jordan River valley. Obama dispensed with all that in one fell swoop by calling unilaterally for Israel’s “full and phased withdrawal”—the giant carrot he dangled before the Palestinians. It was, therefore, not just dishonest but utterly incoherent for the president’s defenders to claim that his speech was a productive way to move negotiations forward.

As the election year approached, and the administration’s difficulties with the Jewish vote and the Jewish fundraising base of the Democratic Party became clear, Obama and his people made a conscious decision to drop the subject. They speak of it only when they are forced to, as was the case with Nuland’s uncomfortable colloquy with the Associated Press reporter over Menachem Zivotofsky’s passport. But keeping quiet, or changing digital records in a manner—it must be said—that would have earned the admiration of Stalin, doesn’t alter the fact that the Obama administration has changed American policy toward Israel.

The unprecedented extent to which his administration has gone to pretend the city that has for at least 2,700 years been the capital of the Jewish people is not the capital of the Jewish state suggests that the overwhelming majority of the American people who support Israel are right to regard Barack Obama with deep and abiding suspicion.

About the Author

Omri Ceren, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is writing a dissertation on conspiracy theories. He writes the blog Mere Rhetoric and regularly appears on Commentary’s blog.

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