CHARLOTTE, North Carolina -- Former Congressman Robert Wexler defended the Democratic Party platform as strongly standing behind Israel, in a speech to the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night.
Wexler helped draft the foreign policy section of the party platform, which was approved earlier Tuesday evening amid Republican criticism over the DNC decision to drop language declaring that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel that had been included in the 2008 version.
"The Democratic Party platform reflects the president's unflinching commitment to Israel's security and future as a Jewish state," Wexler told the audience.
The document speaks of US President Barack Obama’s “unshakable commitment to Israel’s security” and described the security assistance provided by Obama to Israel. It also emphasizes that “the president has made clear that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met” and that “President Obama will continue to press Arab states to reach out to Israel.”
Wexler, in what is likely the first-ever convention speech devoted to Israel, also underscored Obama's security assistance to Israel, saying that "the president has proven this commitment time and again, in both word and deed."
He further pointed to Obama's pledge to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, US protection of Israeli diplomatic personal under threat in Egypt and America's defense of Israel at the UN.
Wexler additionally took on Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney's charge last week that Obama had thrown Israel “under the bus.”
"Perhaps Mr. Romney should listen to those who know best – Israel’s leaders," Wexler responded, noting the Israeli leaders who have praised Obama's support of the Jewish state.
But Wexler's address came against a fresh round of tensions between Israel and the US over Iran policy, with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying on Sunday that America doesn’t want to be “complicit” in an Israeli military strike on Tehran.
In addition, questions about Obama’s commitment to Israel continue to be raised in some quarters of the Jewish community. While Democratic party leaders have downplayed any loss of Jewish support over Israel policy, some critics see Wexler’s high-profile speaking slot as a sign of concern in the campaign over how the president’s stance on Israel is playing.
The Romney campaign on Tuesday afternoon slammed the Democratic party for embracing Obama’s “painful refusal to acknowledge that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, also criticized the Democrats for taking out the 2008 language and “whitewashing” the reference to Jerusalem.
In response, Wexler told The Jerusalem Post ahead of his convention appearance: "This is completely absurd in terms of trying to fabricate some kind of stepping back.”
He said that right now policy isn’t focused on the peace process. Rather, “the focus is on security cooperation. The focus is Iran.”
Wexler said that while the US and Israel might have different “tactical considerations” when it comes to dealing with Tehran, there was “no daylight” between them when it came to the countries’ shared commitment to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The platform states that “the president is committed to using all instruments of national power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
“It is total cherry-picking of the language,” Wexler said of the Republican attacks. He called the document as a whole “arguably the most pro-Israel platform language that has ever been in a party platform.”
US House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer also praised the platform as demonstrating that “the Democratic party is now, has been, and will continue to be an unshakable ally, friend and supporter of Israel.”
But he also made clear that not everyone in the party agreed with the changes in the platform, and noted that whenever he and other Democratic members of Congress traveled to Israel, they have treated Jerusalem as the nation’s capital.
Hoyer told the Post that he didn’t know why the language on Jerusalem was dropped, but added, “I wouldn’t have taken it out.”
A DNC spokeswoman told the Post that “we focused the platform on President Obama’s undeniable and unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” and noted that “the Obama administration has followed the same policy towards Jerusalem that previous US administrations of both parties have done since 1967.”
The DNC official added, “The status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians – which we also said in the 2008 platform.”
Earlier in the day, a panel on the sidelines of the convention devoted to the Jewish vote cited a J Street poll that found that most American Jews support the way Obama is handling the Middle East and predicted that the issue wouldn’t turn voters away from the president.
According to the poll, 67 percent of those surveyed support the US playing a strong role in creating a two-state solution even if it meant publicly stating its disagreement with both sides.
Jim Gerstein, a pollster who works with J Street, one of the organizations hosting Tuesday’s event, also said that Israel is an issue that ranks low in the voting priority list even of Jewish voters.
He said his poll found that Israel ranked eighth out of 13 given issues in terms of voters’ concerns, with the economy and health care coming in a the top. Only 7% put Israel as one of their top two voting issues.
“This might be the loudest 7% on the planet, but it’s at the bottom of the list,” said Gerstein.
Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois congresswoman who participated in the J Street event, asked, given the poll numbers, “Why has the notion that it’s all about Israel been so strong and so persistent?”
But Brooks argued that the DNC wouldn’t have decided to feature a speech devoted entirely to Israel during its abbreviated evening program if the party wasn’t concerned about how voters view the issue. He was one of several Jewish activists to not recall a politician ever before delivering a speech devoted solely to Israel at a convention of either party.
“They say it is not important but everything they’re doing is designed to shore up and spin the Jewish community,” Brooks contended.
Schakowsky told the Post that Wexler’s speech was necessary “to put to rest the questions that are raised” about Obama’s record on Israel.
“It is not going to be the main focus” of the Democratic gathering, she said. “Maybe it will be 7% of the convention.”