The State Department on Tuesday faced a second day of criticism from reporters and international Jewish organizations after senior officials continued their refusal to state on the record where the Obama administration believes the capital of Israel is located.
The administration’s refusal to label West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—a non-controversial claim recognized across the world, even by Palestinians—is being viewed as part of ongoing efforts by the administration to politicize the holy city.
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The implication that West Jerusalem, which includes longstanding Israeli districts, is contested territory has never been endorsed by a U.S. administration prior to Obama’s.
While Congress has repeatedly affirmed its support for Jerusalem serving as Israel’s capital city, the Obama administration has for years faced accusations that it is slowly eroding the Jewish state’s claims to West Jerusalem.
This includes erasing the word "Israel" from captions on official pictures taken in Jerusalem in 2011.
The issue of Jerusalem’s status has been thrust into the public spotlight this week following the Supreme Court’s decision to rule in favor of Obama administration efforts to prevent Americans born in Jerusalem from listing Israel as their place of birth.
Jeff Rathke, a spokesman for the State Department, faced pointed questions from reporters about the exact location of Israel’s capital city.
"Can you remind us all what city—or what the United States regards as the capital of Israel?" Rathke was asked on Monday.
"Since Israel’s founding, administrations of both parties have maintained a consistent policy of recognizing no state as having sovereignty over Jerusalem," Rathke replied. "So we remain committed to this longstanding policy, and this decision today [by the Supreme Court] helps ensure that our position on the neutrality of Jerusalem remains—it remains clear."
When pressed to explain whether this "applies to both West and East Jerusalem," which is widely considered to be Palestinian territory, Rathke bristled.
"Again, no change to our policy to announce," Rathke said, prompting one reporter to say, "the contested part of Jerusalem is just the east part. Not even the Palestinians claim the west part."
Jewish groups from across the political spectrum lashed out at the Obama administration, dubbing the statements as "hypocritical and myopic."
Rathke’s refusal to acknowledge any Israeli claim to Jerusalem follows years of efforts by Obama administration officials to shift executive policy regarding the city, according to experts and a review of policy declarations.
"This is the first American administration in history to declare that all of Jerusalem is contested, rather than just the eastern parts that Israel unified into its capital after the 1967 war," said one senior official with a D.C.-based Jewish group. "The American people have a right to know whether the president believes that the Palestinians may have a claim on any other Israeli cities. Haifa? Tel Aviv?"
Multiple administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have recognized parts of Jerusalem as being indisputably Israeli.
Controversy initially erupted over the matter in 2011, when the White House was caught altering photo captions of Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel. Photos that once declared "Jerusalem, Israel" were later scrubbed to read "Jerusalem."
Further reports exposed that the administration had gone back through official archives to remove Israel from documents published during the administration of George W. Bush.
Subsequent investigations determined that administrations including those of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Cater, and Bill Clinton often referred to "Jerusalem, Israel," striking a blow against Obama administration claims that they were upholding a "long-standing" policy.
The following year, the Washington Free Beacon discovered the State Department altered official communications to erase a reference to Israel and Jerusalem as separate entities.
The issue also roiled the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where officials sought to scrub support for Jerusalem being Israel’s capital from the national platform.
The Democratic Party ultimately backed down from this effort after it became a national scandal.
A high-ranking Democratic source at the time told Foreign Policy magazine that Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official, was responsible for the drafting of the party’s Israeli platform.
Kahl, who was recently appointed as Biden’s national security adviser, sits on the president’s National Security Council (NSC).