Jerusalem is back in the spotlight and set to become a potent political issue this election cycle.
A Supreme Court decision this week struck down a law allowing American citizens born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their place of birth.
The decision draws attention to the issue, and puts the prerogative of whether to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital solely in the hands of the president – but it makes it no more likely that candidates seeking the White House in 2016 will follow through on their pledges to do so.
Already, Jeb Bush – expected to declare on Monday that he’s seeking the presidency – has made the perennial campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Many of his fellow Republicans, and maybe some Democrats, are likely to follow suit.
But when the winning candidate enters the Oval Office, that’s probably one of the first vows to voters to be broken.
“It is too politically provocative for American interests in the Muslim world,” said Robert Danin, a State Department official for Middle East issues under George W. Bush now with the Council on Foreign Relations, of the embassy relocation.
Both Israelis and Palestinians claim the holy city. Israel has based its government headquarters in the western part of Jerusalem, while Palestinians envision the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state.
For the last 60 years, U.S. policy has been to recognize no state as having sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Danin noted, “The U.S. doesn’t want to prejudice the outcome of the [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations – in essence, we have decided this is for the parties affected to decide.”
He added that to unilaterally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would be “just too inflammatory” to other Middle Eastern nations that may dispute the city’s status, and something that the U.S. can’t do “absent a settlement that people in the region can accept as well.”
Since 1996, Republicans have included a commitment to moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in their party platform. But when it’s come to taking action, there’s been less enthusiasm. After running on the issue, George Bush waived the law requiring the move, citing national security concerns. Obama has done the same.
Yet last month, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters in Tennessee that he believes the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem “not just as a symbol but a show of solidarity.”
Calling for the embassy to relocate is popular with both American Jews and evangelical Christians.
“In Israel, the issue of Jerusalem is important as a symbol of Israeli sovereignty,” said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, which supported the Supreme Court’s decision. “Jerusalem really does matter to people.”
U.S. recognition for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has typically enjoyed bipartisan support, and many Democrats backed the law that the Supreme Court struck down Monday.
But it’s likely to be a complicated issue for Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic frontrunner. A growing movement within the party’s progressive wing is pushing for further acceptance of Palestinian concerns, which could make it more politically problematic for her and other Democrats to offer full-throated support for an embassy in Jerusalem.
Clinton’s current position on the status of Jerusalem remains unclear. While running for the Senate in 1999, Clinton pledged that if elected, “or in whatever position I find myself in the years to come, you can be sure that I will be an active, committed advocate” for the U.S. embassy to be located in Israel’s “capital, Jerusalem.”
But after becoming secretary of state, Clinton filed a 2011 brief with the Supreme Court in support of the administration’s position that the passport law should be struck down.
In it, she wrote that any U.S. bid to “symbolically or concretely” recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel would “critically compromise the ability of the United States to work with Israelis, Palestinians and others in the region to further the peace process.”
Clinton has not weighed in on the Supreme Court decision, but her GOP opponents also haven’t yet targeted her aggressively on Israel.
Steve Rabinowitz, who worked in the Clinton White House, decried the perennial practice of candidates “paying lip-service” to American supporters of Israel by backing the embassy move even as there was slim chance of them actually following through if elected.
He said the fact that George W. Bush broke his campaign promise dampens Republican criticism.
“Yes, it will be another talking point for right-wing critics of Hillary’s. But it will be no more than all their other hypocritical talking points on which they don’t hold Republicans to the same standard,” he said.
Either way, Danin saw the Supreme Court decision, with its affirmation of the president’s unequivocal authority over the decision of how to characterize Jerusalem, would make it harder for candidates to hide from their commitments when they become president.
“In a way, this has made it more difficult for candidates, because it shines a light on the issue,” he said. “And in a way (the Supreme Court has) escalated the commitment to moving the embassy.”