Obama Camp Denies Backtracking on "Undivided" Jerusalem

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, told the pro-Israel lobby the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he would be a strong ally of the Jewish state. As such, he repeated one of the talking points AIPAC likes to hear, that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

As we covered last night, that proclamation resulted in harsh words from Hamas, as well as more moderate Palestinian voices such as Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erakat who specifically took issue with the "undivided" Jerusalem comments.

"We reject these words," Abbas said. "Jerusalem is one of the files under negotiation. The entire world knows perfectly well that we will never accept a state without Jerusalem. That should be clear."

In an interview today with CNN's Candy Crowley, Obama said of Jerusalem, "obviously, it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations."

Of his feelings about dividing Jerusalem, Obama said: "As a practical matter, it would be very difficult to execute. And I think that it is smart for us to -- to work through a system in which everybody has access to the extraordinary religious sites in Old Jerusalem but that Israel has a legitimate claim on that city."

Some in the media portrayed this as something of a flip-flop. "Facing Criticism, Obama Modifies Jerusalem Stance," said Reuters. "Obama amended his support for Israel's stance on Jerusalem on Thursday…"

With the headline "Obama Backtracks on Jerusalem," Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post wrote: "Facing criticism from Palestinians, Sen. Barack Obama acknowledged today that the status of Jerusalem will need to be negotiated in future peace talks, amending a statement earlier in the week that Jerusalem 'must remain undivided.'" Asked for comment, the Obama campaign put a reporter in immediate contact with Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla. -- an Orthodox Jew, a strong supporter of Israel and Obama's point man on many of these issues -- who told ABC News, "that is not backtracking."

"His position has been the same for the past 16 months," Wexler said. "He believes Jerusalem should be an undivided city and must be the capital of a Jewish state of Israel. He has also said -- and it's the same position as President Bush, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert -- that Jerusalem is of course a 'final status' issue," meaning it would be one of the key and final points of negotiation for a Palestinian state. "And Sen. Obama as president would not dictate final status issues. He will permit the Palestinians and Israel to negotiate, and he would respect any conclusion they reach."

Wexler concluded, "the articles are not picking up this position. They're not contradictions -- they're the same position."

The record seems to back Wexler's argument that Obama has said both that Jerusalem should be Israel's undivided capital, and that its status is ultimately up to Israel. Obama's adviser for the Middle East, former Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, recently said that "It will be impossible to make progress on serious peace talks without putting the future of Jerusalem on the table."

And in these answers to questions from the American Jewish Committee, Obama wrote that the U.S. "cannot dictate the terms of a final status agreement. We should support the parties as they negotiate these difficult issues, but they will have to reach agreements that they can live with. In general terms, clearly Israel must emerge in a final status agreement with secure borders. Jerusalem will remain Israel's capital, and no one should want or expect it to be redivided."

- jpt

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