Obama and Jerusalem, Take 3

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So maybe Obama was not unadvised or guilty of “misspeaking” when he told AIPAC that he stands for an “undivided” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Here’s Bernard Avishai’s interpretation of the comments:

But even the most apparently contentious thing he said—contentious, at least, outside the room—was carefully worded. Obama said that in any two-state solution Israel would have an “undivided” Jerusalem as its capital. He did not—note well—say a “united” Jerusalem, which would have pushed him from the Democratic Party to the Likud.
Indeed, let’s be clear about this, since some (including Mahmud Abbas, alas) have interpreted his phrase to mean exclusive Israeli sovereignty in the city. Again, when Israeli rightists say that Jerusalem should be exclusively theirs they say the city should be Israel’s capital and united. “Undivided” is the Labor Party euphemism for a city whose Arab and Jewish quarters are not separated by a wall, as before 1967 (and—though this is not usually mentioned in this context—the wall Israel has more recently thrown up).
“Undivided” does not prejudice the question of who is awarded formal sovereignty where. The Geneva Initiative, for example, proposes an undivided Jerusalem with international forces helping to keep the place an administrative whole.

My colleague Ron Kiener, just back from Israel, says that Avishai’s got it just right, and that’s good enough for me.
The questions then become: Why did Mahmoud Abbas express great distress at Obama’s remark, and why rightwingers at AIPAC express great distress at the subsequent clarification of Oama’s remark? Maybe they both thought the rookie didn’t really know what he was saying, and that they could they could roll him in their direction. In retrospect, it probably would have been better for Obama to say exactly what he meant the first time around, instead of throwing in a one-sentence coded-language applause line. On the other hand, if anybody could have been expected to understand the code, the good folks of AIPAC should have.

  • Cindy

    I totally agree with this take on it, Obama meant that the city would not be physically divided and that Jerusalem would be the capital of Israel, just like he said *but* without qualifying that statement somehow in the ways that Clinton (“open access”) or the Vatican (“double role”) or others have when speaking of a united Jerusalem, Obama’s statement was reasonably subject to being understood in an exclusionist way. Obama knew what he was talking about alright, his past statements indicate that, but whether calculated or not, by his omission rather than by what he said, he made a very potentially dangerous mistake and at a really bad time, too, seeing as how the Saudis (who consider themselves protector of the Jerusalem mosque) were hosting a 50-nation religious get together in anticipation of an interfaith meeting with the Vatican and probably others. That said, I think it’s wrong that people say he flip-flopped or backtracked, when really he just wasn’t clear enough.

  • Cindy

    Also, I think there was heightened sensitivity to the issue because of the anniversary of the ’67 “naksa” (which Fatah spokesman Erekat referenced in saying that Obama’s speech was the worst that happened to them since the naksa) and the June 4 call of Al-Qaeda #2 al-Zawahiri, which has been translated on the nefafoundaiton website, and this follows on the announcement of an al-Qaeda group in Gaza. Both Hamas and Fatah leadership have their own necks to protect, and to do that they have to stick to the all or nothing position (even though the PLO still has on the books the agreement with the Holy See and still mentions the phased plan).
    On the Jewish side, I suspect they are being influenced by both spin coming out by parties for whom it’s in their interest to paint Obama as a flip-flopper or naif, plus I think there was such an overly receptive reaction to his speech that they were branding as being a shocking reversal (but that actually should not have surprised them if they’d been following Obama’s own words rather than third party smears), that any clarification was seen w/deep suspicion and betrayal.