In damage control over Israel, the Democratic Party abruptly reversed course Wednesday and reinstated language that asserts Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state. The party also reinstated language affirming the God-given potential of Americans.
The changes were made by a voice vote as the convention opened at 5 p.m. and were done at the direct request of President Obama, said Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“The president intervened out of a personal opinion that Jerusalem should be recognized as the state of Israel, recognizing that this was in the 2008 platform,” Wasserman Schultz said.
“We already had a 100 percent pro-Israel platform,” she said, “but the president wanted to make sure there was even more clarity in it.”
But the changes didn’t come easy. Few knew they were happening. None of the rank-and-file Democrats had a clue about Obama’s involvement.
Some delegates, many of whom held "Arab American Democrats" signs on the convention floor, loudly opposed the changes as they yelled “no.”
Those delegates said they opposed the language about Jerusalem specifically. And they didn’t like the last-minute procedural move that caught them off-guard.
“Obviously, it makes me feel a little frustrated that this is not being truly discussed in a fair just way,” said Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim-American woman elected to the Michigan state Legislature.The last-minute decision followed a day of Democrats defending the policy — and marred an otherwise triumphant convention opener where they showcased minorities.
In drafting the platform, the committee left out language that asserts Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and will remain it — a position that had been in the party’s 2008 document.
The language was stripped this year by a vote of the platform committee, Tlaib said, who’s on the rules committee for the convention. She said the reversal was made because of “pushback from the Jewish community.”
Early Wednesday, before the language changed, Republicans pounced. Democrats went on defense as they realized they’d caused problems with a key constituency: Jewish voters.
“No one has been stronger on Israel than President Obama,” Schultz, the Broward County lawmaker who is Jewish told a gaggle of reporters Wednesday morning.
Explaining the foreign-policy nuances of the party’s posture and goals wasn’t how Wasserman Schultz had planned to spend the morning after First Lady Michelle Obama gave a much-heralded speech at the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
But the issue of Israel and Jewish voters – a key Democratic interest group in swing-state Florida – dominated the discussion. Just days before, at his party’s convention in Tampa, Republican Mitt Romney had accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus.”
The Jerusalem omission was a sign, Republicans said, that Romney was right.
Wasserman Schultz, who represents one of the most-Jewish districts in Congress, had to grapple with another flap: The accusation from a conservative newspaper columnist that she had quoted U.S. ambassador to Israel Michael Oren saying that Republicans were dangerous to Israel.
She disputed the account in the Examiner newspaper, and warned not to put "love of party before love of Israel." Support for Israel is one area where both parties have traditionally been in solidarity, she said.
"They ripped one line out of what I said and left the rest so it appeared as though I was saying something that I wasn't," she said. "In fact, that line is the opposite of what I always say, and I will say it again: It is dangerous to turn Israel into a political football, as the Republicans are trying to do. It is dangerous for Israel."
Wasserman Schultz and other Democrats say Republicans are having it both ways when it comes to party platforms.
After all, the Republican platform didn’t explicitly call for the reversal of Obama-era changes concerning another foreign-policy touchstone for Florida voters: Cuba. Obama loosened travel restrictions, but Republicans never called for reversing them.
What’s more, Romney’s running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, repeatedly voted against the Cuban embargo in his early years in Congress. Wasserman Schultz, a Cuba hardliner, helped muster enough Democratic votes to kill one anti-embargo measure supported by Ryan.
“Paul Ryan has had no purifying vote on Cuba,” Wasserman Schultz said. “He’s squishy when it comes to Cuba.”
Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen, the House foreign-relations chairwoman, said Ryan had come to support the embargo. And, she said, it wasn’t fair to hold Romney accountable to a party platform that few people read.
Romney had promised to take a hardline stance on Cuba and, like many Republican and Democratic candidates before, said he’ll support recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a touchy subject with Palestinians and the Arab world.
The United States has maintained that Jerusalem’s status as Israel's capital is a matter of negotiation; the U.S. embassy remains in Tel Aviv.
When the Democratic party-plank omitted references to Jerusalem, a Romney campaign spokesman said the Democratic Party was signaling "a radical shift in its orientation, away from Israel."
The Republican Jewish Coalition announced Wednesday it would run a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer to "send a special message to President Obama and the Democratic Party during the Democratic National Convention."
"Does the document accurately mirror Barack Obama’s views?" asked former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, Romney's liaison to the Jewish community. "Given that his top aides have said that the platform reflects his policies, and given that his official White House spokesman has also refused to name Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that is now an urgent question to which the American people deserve an immediate and unequivocal response."
Democrats worked to mend fences with their Jewish voters -- although the first night of the convention also featured a speech about Israel from former Florida congressman Robert Wexler, the Obama campaign's liaison to the Jewish community and one of the people who helped craft the platform.
Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have had a strained relationship since Obama took office with a tough stance against Israel's building of settlements in the West Bank.
Wexler argued Wednesday that the Democratic platform addresses Israel's chief security concerns, particularly the threat of a nuclear Iran. It has been the policy of every administration since 1967 that Jerusalem's status should be determined in final negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Wexler said. He also said that Republicans, too, had changed their platform on Israel, too.
"It's a totally false issue," Wexler said. "The language that is in the Democratic platform this year is 100 percent pro-Israel language."
But Democrats had a change of heart at day's end, making it even more "pro-Israel."
The issue dogged top Democrats, who don't want to see their lead narrow among Jewish voters.
Jewish voters traditionally vote heavily for Democratic presidential candidates, but Republicans have been pushing hard for their support, particularly in Florida. Obama received about 74 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, and polls suggest support is just as strong this year.
One reason for the strong support: Most Jewish voters don’t see Israel as their top concern and tend to be among the most-socially liberal constituencies.
"I am confident that because of words and deeds from President Obama and Democrats across this country, that we have a stellar record on Israel," said Wasserman Schultz. "Jewish voters know that, and I'm proud to support this president, and I'm proud that Israeli leaders have acknowledged that Israel has never had a greater friend than President Obama."
Lesley Clark and David Lightman of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.