Democrats' headache over Jerusalem status

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Reports say President Barack Obama intervened personally on the issue of how to refer to Jerusalem

How to describe the city of Jerusalem has caused controversy at this week's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, with confusing scenes on the convention floor as a vote was held on the issue. BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Jonathan Marcus explains why.

President Barack Obama reportedly intervened personally to have the sentence "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel" returned to the Democratic Party's main policy document on Wednesday.

His concern, it is suggested, was that the exclusion of an explicit reference to Jerusalem as Israel's capital would provide a free hit for his Republican opponent Mitt Romney, who in his convention address accused the Obama administration of throwing its Israeli ally "under a bus".

For its part, the Republican programme refers to "two democratic states - Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine - living in peace and security".

Israel and many of its supporters regard a united Jerusalem - Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 - as its undivided capital.

Most major powers do not, including the US which, like many other countries, has its embassy in Tel Aviv.

So the Democratic Party's official policy position, while now consistent with the president's own stance during the 2008 campaign, remains out of step with official US government policy, which is that the city's status should be determined in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

'Visit Jerusalem, win Florida'

The whole affair tends to reinforce some myths about American politics and the importance of the Jewish vote.

The US Jewish community tends to be educated, politically active and is concentrated in certain key areas.

Image caption,
Mr Romney visited Israel in July and has sought to exploit the row in the Democratic party

"Romney Visits Jerusalem To Win Florida" ran a head-line in the Wall Street Journal in late July; a reference to the Republican candidates eagerness to win over Jewish votes in the "Sunshine State".

In Florida, where George Bush won in 2000 by a mere 537 votes, even a small swing among Jewish voters could make a difference.

However, for all the talk about the importance of the Jewish vote, the fact remains that US Jewish voters (the community constitutes only about 2% of the population) still overwhelmingly support the Democrats.

A Gallup poll at the end of July suggested that among registered voters Jews favoured Obama over Romney by 68% to 25%.

Mr Romney and the Republicans have tried to capitalise on the undoubted tensions in relations between Mr Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But here too, the figures contradict the myths. Israel is important to many US Jews certainly, but not preeminent in determining their vote.

A March opinion poll asked American Jews what most influenced their presidential vote; only 6% answered Israel.

For Jewish voters, a majority of whom tend to be liberal in their outlook, it is the economy, health care and so on that matter most - surprisingly, just like most other Americans who will go to the polls this November.