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Democrats play the blame game on Israel platform flap

CHARLOTTE – Following a tumultuous and embarrassing episode Wednesday in which the Democratic National Committee suddenly altered its platform to embrace Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, top Democrats are pointing fingers in every direction. After defending their decision to keep language on final status issues out of the platform all morning Wednesday, convention leaders ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE – Following a tumultuous and embarrassing episode Wednesday in which the Democratic National Committee suddenly altered its platform to embrace Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, top Democrats are pointing fingers in every direction.

After defending their decision to keep language on final status issues out of the platform all morning Wednesday, convention leaders reversed themselves Wednesday afternoon and proposed two amendments to the platform adopted on Tuesday, one to add a mention of God and one to add a mention of Jerusalem. That decision followed a full day of pressure brought on the DNC and the administration by lawmakers, AIPAC, and other Jewish elected officials in Charlotte.

"Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths," the new platform language states.

An Obama campaign official told The Cable late Wednesday that the change in platform was made to reflect the personal views of the president, who believes that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and who "personally intervened" to ask for the platform change. The official explanation is that the omission of the Jerusalem line was an oversight by platform drafting staff, even though people involved in the drafting said Wednesday that the omission was intentional, as a means of avoiding discussing final-status issues altogether.

"There’s a difference between running for president and governing," an official involved in the process told The Cable Wednesday. "And when you govern on this issue, the official position of the United States has been for years and from administrations of both parties that the status of Jerusalem is a final-status issue."

By Thursday morning, top campaign officials took to the airwaves to point fingers at the platform drafters in an attempt to deflect responsibility from the DNC and the Obama campaign leadership.

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the omission was a "technical error" during the drafting process. David Axelrod blamed the controversy of the Israel platform on unspecified "others" on whom the president was depending to draft the platform and said that Obama had asked for the platform change when he became aware of the issue.

The campaign did not respond to a request for comment on who the "others" were, but it’s been well reported that the two officials given the responsibility for overseeing the drafting of the Israel platform plank in July and August were Obama campaign national security advisor co-chair and former Pentagon official Colin Kahl and former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler.

The Cable asked Kahl Thursday whether the campaign was unfairly pointing fingers at him and Wexler in an attempt to deflect blame on the issue. He didn’t directly address the question, but said the drafters never meant to say that Jerusalem was not the capital of Israel.

"I don’t think there was any intention by the drafters to signal any change in U.S. policy. Clearly, it was misinterpreted that way. So the president intervened to correct the record and they changed the platform," he said. "We are where we are. We should move on. The platform is changed."

Kahl also defended the overall platform plank on Israel, which he said focused on the security and financial assistance the Obama administration has given to Israel and avoided getting into any final-status issues.

"Nobody can read the Democratic platform on Israel and come away with the sense that it’s not pro-Israel. It’s extraordinarily pro-Israel. More importantly, the administration has been supportive of Israel in an unprecedented manner," he said.

Wexler staunchly defended the original platform language in an interview with The Cable Wednesday and staunchly defended the new platform language in an interview today. He said that the party’s position on Jerusalem never wavered.

"The position of the Democratic Party has always been that Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel. I have a 13-year voting record in Congress that is consistent with that," he said. "It’s the same platform; now it’s got two more sentences. The original language was all pro-Israel language. Now it has the language on Jerusalem, too. I’m glad they did that. The policy hadn’t changed. There was confusion, and the president wanted to clear it up. It was as simple as that."

Some people involved in the discussions over the issue here in Charlotte were upset by what they saw as Kahl and Wexler’s poor handling of the issue, both before the convention and after the platform became a controversy in Charlotte.

"Colin Kahl and Bob Wexler bear personal responsibility for the platform debacle and the embarrassment caused to the president and the party," said one source involved in the back and forth over the platform change. "They led a secretive, exclusionary process, rather than an inclusive one, recklessly threw out the longstanding platform language, and then attempted to cover their tracks by misleading stakeholders about what they had done and with whom they had consulted."

One Democratic official directly involved in the platform-drafting process rejected that criticism and argued that AIPAC and other critics could have weighed in on the Israel plank of the platform at the time.

"To say that any one or two people were responsible for the language on Israel in the Democratic Party platform is flat wrong," the official said. "This platform was adopted by a committee of over 100 representatives, and numerous advocacy groups had the opportunity to formally participate in the process. It’s wrong to point fingers at one or two people, both of whom have been steadfast supporters of Israel and have worked to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship while inside government and out."

At a series of events in Charlotte Wednesday, lawmakers and Jewish elected officials from around the country pressured the administration to do something to sort out the flap. Buzzfeed reported that a full third of the Senate Democratic caucus pressed top officials including White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew and former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy on the issue at a Wednesday lunch hosted by AIPAC.

One Democratic senator told The Cable that he had only become aware of the flap on Wednesday and immediately raised objections to the platform omissions with the administration. Multiple sources told The Cable that several lawmakers pressed the White House directly Wednesday, including Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Steve Israel (D-NY), Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

AIPAC also decided Wednesday to go public about its objections to the platform after Democratic officials said on background that AIPAC had signed off on the original platform, a claim AIPAC strongly denied.

Delegates inside the convention hall Wednesday evening told The Cable they were happy with the platform change, if for no other reason that it would end the controversy over what they believed was a non-issue.

"If those simple changes are going to make people feel more comfortable with our platform and allow us to be more inclusive, than that’s what we need to do," said Emily Mixter, a Michigan delegate.

Jeremy Moss, an alternate delegate from Michigan, said the change was needed to assure delegates the policy hadn’t changed.

"I’m a Jewish elected official, and this was an important part of the platform that was included in years past," he said. "They excluded language that was in the platform in years prior, which is something that I didn’t understand."

Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, told The Cable that there’s no contradiction between a party platform that states Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and an administration policy that refused to recognize it.

"The administration’s policy is what has been a bipartisan policy, which is that this is an issue to be decided between the parties. So are we going to dictate this? Of course not. But do we prefer Jerusalem as the capital? Of course we do," he said.

Smith also commented on the perception that the crowd inside the hall did not actually vote in favor of the new platform plank but the convention heads ignored the crowd and declared that two-thirds of delegates had voted for it.

"I’ve taken some voice votes and I’ve received some voice votes, and I can tell you it’s in the ear of the beholder," he said. "I’ve been at a lot of conventions. Something will always spring up. It never fails. Something on the floor surprises you. That will never stop."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin