Posted on March 28, 1994 in Washington Watch

The United States showed a weak hand in its vote on the United Nations Resolution condemning the massacre at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque. This weak hand was a function of Administration efforts to reconcile the political priority of restarting the peace talks with the reality of intense domestic political pressures.

In the weeks leading up to the vote the White House was bombarded by calls to veto the proposed resolution because it referred to Jerusalem as occupied territory. An overwhelming majority of the U.S. Senate voted in favor of a resolution calling for the Administration to veto the UN Resolution. Letters to the President signed by the majority of the members of the House of Representatives also called upon the U.S. to veto the resolution. And five Democratic Senators, all of whom are up for election this year, made urgent calls to the President expressing their concern over the potential negative impact on Democratic candidates this fall if the Administration supported the UN Resolution.

Meanwhile, leading Republicans exploited the Administration’s quandary over the UN vote. Appearing as guest speakers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference, Jack Kemp (who many consider the leading Republican Presidential contender for 1996), New York Senator Al D’Amato and Congressman Newt Gingrich (who is likely to become Minority Leader of the Republicans in Congress in 1995) all called upon the Administration to veto the UN Resolution.

Political analysts understood that the Republican ploy was an effort to recapture the relatively strong Jewish support that Republicans had enjoyed during the Reagan Administration. They wanted to appear more pro-Israel than Clinton, and even Rabin, which the Republicans hoped would give them a chance of undoing the loss of Jewish votes and money Republicans they suffered during the Bush years.

What provided the Administration with some breathing room was the fact that the largest pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, was virtually silent about the UN vote. AIPAC was urged by the government of Israel not to call for a veto of the UN resolution, and at its national meeting the ruling board of the lobby defeated a motion which would have called upon the Administration to veto the UN Resolution. Similarly, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which passed a resolution opposing the UN Resolution, did not join the forces calling for a veto.

Therefore, what emerged was one of the most intriguing side bars to the entire story: the split that emerged between some pro-Israel elements in the American Jewish community on the one hand, and other elements of that community along with the Labor-led government of Israel on the other. AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents lined up behind the position of Rabin, which was to accede to the UN Resolution; while the Zionist Organization of America and Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (among others) led the fight calling for a veto.

There was also an intense debate within the Administration. Many career foreign service officers, especially those with experience in the Middle East, advised the Administration not to allow the perception of change on American policy on Jerusalem. They warned of the danger that changing to the U.S. position would have in the region, saying that the impact of a new U.S. policy on Jerusalem would ruin the peace process. Arguing for a veto, or at least an abstention to “objectionable passages,” were some political appointees whose concerns were those of domestic political impact a UN vote would have on the White House and the Democratic Party in general.

I recall a similar round of debate from 1988, when I led the fight for a Democratic Party platform resolution calling for Palestinian rights and self-determination. I represented the Jesse Jackson Presidential campaign in that fight. We had enough votes to generate at least a debate on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Opposing us were the victorious Dukakis campaign and the Democratic Party regulars who supported Middle East policy language which made no mention of Palestinians. The leader of the Dukakis campaign’s negotiating team was, ironically, Madeleine Albright, now the U.S. Ambassador to the UN.

Albright’s arguments with me were of two types. First, on principle, the Dukakis campaign would not accept any changes in language because their position was form and virtually non-negotiable (although they did indicate a willingness to add some modest language about Palestinians). More to the point, however, was their argument that they feared damaging political repercussions if this issue were debated in public. They were concerned that we would press for a floor debate, since they felt that even such an airing of this issue would anger the Jewish community and therefore have the potential of “destroying the Democratic Party.”

In the end, I held out for the right to a floor debate. We did not win on our resolution but we did force a debate, the first such debate at a Democratic convention. Although some in the Jewish community were outraged and the Republican Party did attempt to exploit the debate, the public exchange of ideas and positions did not in fact destroy the party.

This fear of alienating the most hard-line elements in the pro-Israel community still exists, and is still a powerful factor in shaping U.S. policy.

In the months leading up to the writing and adoption of the 1992 Democratic Party platform, we worked out a compromise language on the Middle East with some Jewish groups. But our efforts were undercut by a powerful group of party regulars. Seeking to avoid a repeat of 1988, these party activists engineered a compromise between the more liberal Americans for Peace Now and the more hard-line AIPAC groups which included this language relevant to the current debate over U.S. policy toward Jerusalem

“Support for the peace process now underway in the Middle East, rooted in the tradition of the Camp David accords. Direct negotiations between Israel, her Arab neighbors and Palestinians, with no imposed solutions, are the only way to achieve enduring security for Israel and full peace for all parties in the region. ....The United States must act effectively as an honest broker in the peace process. It must not, as has been the case with this Administration, encourage one side to believe that it will deliver unilateral concessions from the other. Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”

Although clearly pro-Israel in its leanings, the language was somewhat ambiguous. What did the Clinton campaign mean by it? I objected to the lack of balance in the platform language with an op-ed in the Washington Post, writing, “Instead of offering genuine support for the peace process, the platform criticizes the Bush Administration for being one-sided (presumably against Israel). ...And for the first time in eight years, the platform includes a provocative section calling `undivided’ Jerusalem the capital of Israel, in effect predetermining the outcome of one of the most sensitive issues to be negotiated in the peace talks.”

Two of the major crafters of that language, Peter Edelman (then President of Americans for Peace Now and now an Administration official in the Department of Health and Human Services), and Stuart Eizenstat (a former Carter Administration official and a point person for the more hard-line Jewish community at the time and now serving as a U.S. representative to the European Community), responded with a letter to the in the Washington Post, and wrote,

“Mr. Zogby condemned the Democratic platform for including a `provocative section calling undivided Jerusalem that capital of Israel…’ In fact, the platform recognizes that Israel considers Jerusalem its capital. It makes no statement about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem before the peace process is complete. It simply repeats what has been U.S. policy under every President since 1967, mainly that Jerusalem should not be divided again…. The U.S. government has been able to maintain this position without offending Arab nations by leaving the issue of sovereignty over the undivided city to final negotiations between the parties.”

This position was ridiculed by some Jewish critics who noted that in effect, the Clinton position amounts to posturing, not promising to do anything to change U.S. policy. They argued that if the U.S. would not move its embassy or do anything to change the status of Jerusalem, they campaign had nothing to offer to hard-line Jewish activists.

Thus, during Clinton’s recent meeting with a group of American Jewish leaders when he was asked the question “have you changed you position on Jerusalem,” Clinton responded with a flat no and said that his position had not changed. By this he really means two seemingly contradictory things:

1) his campaign position still stands; and
2) U.S. policy toward Jerusalem still stands.

So on one level, the U.S. explanation for its vote can be accepted at face value. This explanation breaks out into several points.

1) The Administration wants to see the peace process resume and knew that the UN Resolution was critical to achieving that goal.

2) The White House also wanted to condemn the massacre and work within the framework of the Declaration of Principles to establish an international mechanism to provide some increased security and confidence for Palestinians.

3) The Clinton team did not want to accept language that would weaken Rabin in Israel or be seen by enemies of Rabin as an attempt by the U.S. to predetermine the outcome of the final status negotiations regarding Jerusalem and the sovereignty of the Israeli-occupied territories.

And, of course, not included in the official version but clearly understood by all U.S. observers is that the Administration was looking for a way out of an up or down UN vote on this resolution (which Israel also supported as necessary to restart the peace talks), and as a way of relieving the intense domestic political pressure coming from some strong pro-Israeli elements, from a number of leading Republicans, and from some Democrats who are running for reelection this fall.

For our part, Arab Americans insisted and continue to insist that the U.S. respond more vigorously to incidents of Israeli settlement building around Jerusalem, and we urged the Administration to support the description of Jerusalem as occupied territory. We insisted that both of these positions were correct from both the legal and moral point of view. In the end, we lost – practical politics continues to dictate another course of action.

In these calculations of practical politics, Arab Americans cannot yet compete with Jewish Americans head-on, nor does it appear to policy makers that, when weighed in the balance, the potential price to be paid in the Arab world for the U.S. vote will not be at all equal to the price the Administration would be paying had it chosen to vote in favor of the entire resolution.

And so one level, our side lost – the U.S. objected to language we felt was both morally and legally correct. On another level, the loss is only one of appearances, since there will be no real change in policy.

The real issues are not the words; they are the imbalance of political power that continues to shape the words that are used.

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