Washington Watch: Blowing smoke over Jerusalem

Moving the US embassy to Israel's capital is an apple-pie issue.

McCain 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
McCain 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
John McCain should know better, and so should pro-Israel voters. The GOP nominee-to-be must think we're a pretty gullible bunch of nudniks if he expects us to believe that he will move the US embassy to Jerusalem "right away" if he is elected president. It won't happen, and he knows it. But that's what he said when CNN's Wolf Blitzer last week asked if as president he would move the embassy. "Yes," he answered. "Right Away. I've been committed to that proposition for years." Who does he think he is, George W. Bush? Candidate Bush made the same pledge eight years ago. He promised to move the embassy on his first day in office, but backtracked to say he'd "begin the process" on the first day. We're still waiting. Like his predecessor, Bush has signed waivers every six months delaying the 1995 congressional mandate to move the embassy. McCain voted for that law, but hasn't pressed the issue except on the campaign trail, and he hasn't objected once to Bush's waivers of his own 2000 campaign promise. McCain has spent weeks accusing Barack Obama of backtracking on Jerusalem after telling American Israel Public Affairs Committee members he supports an "undivided Jerusalem" and then explaining he meant to say the final status of the city should be negotiated by the Israelis and Palestinians. Republicans and hard-liners who wouldn't vote for him anyway have pointed to that as evidence that the Democratic candidate is no real friend of Israel and cannot be trusted. The flaw in their argument is that Obama's position is the same as that of Senator McCain and, currently, President Bush as well as all previous presidents. In June McCain told a Miami audience the embassy should be moved "before anything else happens," adding, "The subject of Jerusalem itself will be addressed in negotiations by the Israeli government and people." He didn't mention whether the Palestinians would be among those "people." MCCAIN DOESN'T need to make such empty promises to convince anyone that he is a proven friend of Israel, so why this pandering? Is it a sign of desperation or just a slip of the tongue? "It is such a transparent political ploy; his advisers should know better than to keep trying to play us for fools," said Neal Sher, a former AIPAC executive director. A look behind the curtain may help understand this deviation from McCain's promise of straight talk. His top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, served in that role for Bob Dole when he ran for president and introduced the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act in 1995. Coincidence? Since Dole was never among Israel's top 91 friends in the US Senate unless he was seeking the presidency, it was widely assumed that his real motivation was raising Jewish money. It's an old ritual, trying to use the embassy issue to embarrass your political opponents in a transparent bid for Jewish support. Republicans tried it on Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Democrats returned the favor during the Reagan administration. In 1995, with Dole preparing to challenge him, it was Bill Clinton's turn to be put on the spot. It was one of those apple-pie issues that is hard to vote against, and sponsors knew it. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin quietly tried to discourage bringing it up, but Dole, working with AIPAC, which shared an opposition to Clinton's and Rabin's peace policies, delighted in putting the screws on both leaders. Dole raised the money he was looking for, but not the votes. Nearly 80 percent of Jews voted for Clinton. Moving the embassy has never been a high priority for any Israeli leader in meetings with American presidents. They see it as a political football in an American game they prefer staying out of. All recent prime ministers have understood that an agreement on Jerusalem is critical to any peace settlement with the Palestinians - and that symbolic action like American politicians trying to force the embassy move can only make an agreement more elusive. But the game continues even though seasoned political observers understand it's a sham. This year is no exception. Any politician who tells you he's going to move the embassy before the Israelis and Palestinians come to an agreement on the city's final status and borders thinks you're wearing a name tag that says "chump."