Americans who identify with Israel, and who are looking for another reason to vote against Barack Obama, can find it in Monday''s headlines.
"The White House: Romney must explain why he said that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel."
Palestinians responded even more forcefully. Not only did they object to Romney referring to Jerusalem as Israel''s capital. They insisted it is Palestine''s capital. Palestinians also objected to Romney''s praise of Jewish culture, linking it to Israel''s economic development, and saying that he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem if he were elected.
Why the concern of the White House with the hoary questions about Jerusalem rather than the more timely subject of Iran?
Perhaps because there was no discernible difference between Romney''s comments on that topic and what the White House has been saying all along. Iran should not be allowed to develope nuclear weapons, and all options are on the table.
The city that spurred Crusades also provokes strong feelings in our generation. Yet it may help to recognize that esoteric claims about whose it is--if anyone''s--has no substantial importance for Israel''s security, prestige, or daily activity.
The city''s status in international law--for whatever that means--is stuck in a limbo created in 1947 and reinforced in 1949. According to United Nations resolutions still honored by the United States and many other countries, the city is a separate entity, not part of any state, waiting an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, assuming it is they who have inherited the possibility of creating what the United Nations meant by an Arab state.
There were times when foreign dignitaries insisted on meeting Israeli officials in Tel Aviv, and when some would not visit the Western Wall or other sites in East Jerusalem while on official business in Israel. "West Jerusalem" acquired status as an Israeli city in some eyes, but not "East Jerusalem" after 1967.
I do not remember the last occasion when Israeli was troubled by such slights to its national pride. For all practical purposes, Jerusalem is not only an Israeli city, but also the capital. Visiting heads of state and diplomats conduct their business in Jerusalem at the official residences or offices of the Prime Minister and President, and the Knesset. They stay at the King David or one of the city''s other plush hotels, and visit the Jewish shrines of the Western Wall on one side of the 1967 line, and Yad Vashem on the other side of that line.
Israelis living in Jerusalem or its environs receive their consular services (visas for visiting the United States, applications for Social Security payments, and passport renewals and birth registrations for those who are US citizens) at the US Consulate in Jerusalem, which also serves the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Jerusalem Consulate officials represent the United States in "Palestine," doing what Embassies perform elsewhere.
Documents issued by the Consulate indicate that they come from Jerusalem, with no country designation. Israelis living outside of the Jerusalem area acquire documents indicating that they come from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel.
There is a spanking new Consulate building, a few meters to the east of the 1967 boundary, in what has become a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem. It replaces a structure in an Arab neighborhood, which felt like it was left over from the British era or even that of the Turks. On my visit to the new Consulate, I was impressed by improved access and facilities, but wondered how Palestinians from outside of Jerusalem reach it. The Consulate''s website describes Israel''s control over entry to Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank, notes that access might be denied to non-Israelis for a variety of reasons that may not be made clear, and provides telephone and e-mail information for individuals seeking the assistance of the United States Government.
Israeli politicians take every opportunity to express the mantra that Jerusalem will remain a united and Israeli city. Some of us are willing to give up troublesome Arab neighborhoods that we never visit, but that is unlikely to happen without far reaching negotiations that are also not likely to happen anytime soon. Meanwhile, municipal and government authorities provide minimum (or less) services to Arab neighborhoods, a situation unlikely to change as long as Palestinians continue to press heavily against Arab residents of Jerusalem that they do not take part in municipal elections.
It is reasonable to note that Jerusalem is united, but only in a formal sense.
Residents of large American cities with ethnic ghettos they avoid can think in the same terms about Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Police enter some of them only when necessary, and in force. The fire brigade sends Arab personnel in order to minimize the stoning of efforts to save lives and property. There are Arab ambulance services and an Arab bus company that links Arab neighborhoods with one another.
Jews and Arabs pay their prices for sharing Jerusalem. The population ratio is about 63-37. Peace-loving Arabs suffer security checks on account of Arabs who are not peace-loving. Jews living near Arabs hear loud calls to prayer five times a day from mosque loud speakers, which some believe are upped in order to disturb the Jews. Those of us in near the city''s eastern borders often cannot receive Israeli radio stations clearly, due to the Arabic music and chatter on the same frequencies, perhaps from pirate transmitters. Religious and nationalist Jews wanting to pray on the Temple Mount cannot do so. Israeli police act against them to avoid offending Muslims and another volley of stones onto the Jews at the Western Wall. Orthodox rabbis urge Jews to avoid the Temple Mount in order to keep away from sacred space whose precise location is not certain.
Israelis are used to American presidential candidates promising to move the Embassy to Jerusalem, then not doing it once elected. Perhaps the wonder is not that Romney said what was expected, but that someone in the White House thought it necessary to call him on the meaningless assertion that Jerusalem is Israel''s capital.
Mr. Romney was saying it as a tourist, not as President.
Ah! You say he was saying it as the Republican nominee.
And even if he was saying it as a major party nominee, we all know the value of campaign statements.
The White House making an issue of this may reflect the continued feeling of someone that the peace process still has some life in it, and all should be done to avoid offending one of the parties.
Challenging Romney on a campaign statement might not have been a presidential decision. What is called the White House or the Executive Office of the President is a big place that spills over into several buildings and employs a lot of competitive and anxious people, with perhaps 2,500 of them having "policymaking responsibilities."
Approaching 40 years here, I''ve never been bothered by the city''s formal status, or its lack of a formal status that fits reality. There are neighborhoods I do not enter, but that would also be true if I lived in Washington, D.C.
Should the issue bother us?
Only if one expects perfection in politics, if one is looking for yet another reason to vote against an incumbent president who has not done or said everything that supporters of Israel prefer, and if one believes that Mitt Romney will be the first president to deliver all he promised in the campaign and to merit unqualified praise.