White House changes in Jerusalem photo captions prompt concerns

washington   |   Jerusalem: To be or not to be part of Israel. That’s the question that White House administrations have tiptoed around for decades.

The State Department neither recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital nor views the eastern part of the city — captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequently annexed — as part of Israel. But Congress passed a law in 2002 that effectively recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Presidents have been caught in the middle, cautiously balancing their pro-Israel rhetoric against longstanding U.S. policy.

USjtajerusalemWhen this official White House photo was posted in March 2010, the caption read “Vice President Joe Biden laughs with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, Israel.” This month, the word “Israel” was removed. photo/white house/david lienemann

That’s exactly where the Obama administration found itself last week after news reports revealed that the White House quietly had removed all references to Jerusalem as being part of Israel from a collection of photos on its Web site.

The Weekly Standard reported Aug. 9 about a set of White House photos from Jerusalem that had been scrubbed of references to Israel. For example, a caption on a shot of Vice President Joe Biden that used to say he was dining at the “David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel” was altered to read simply “Jerusalem.”

A virtual tour of the White House’s online archives shows that President George W. Bush’s administration labeled photos similarly: pictures of him in Jerusalem do not denote that the city is in Israel. During one such trip to the Jewish state in 2008, for instance, Bush visited “Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, in Jerusalem,” according to the caption.

Some pro-Israel activists were incensed by the recent caption changes, charging a White House whitewash and calling it proof that President Barack Obama disdains Israel. To others it appeared that the president was kowtowing to pressure from the State Department, which recently had reiterated its policy against recognizing Jerusalem as part of Israel.

But a White House official said the photo captions had been corrected to reflect longstanding U.S. policy: Jerusalem is just Jerusalem until the Israelis and Palestinians sign a peace deal.

 “U.S. policy for more than 40 years has been that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in final-status negotiations between the parties,” a White House official said last week.

If nothing substantial had changed from Bush to Obama, why did the photo snafu receive so much attention?

First there was the public relations gaffe: Jerusalem’s status is a highly charged political issue, and the Obama administration was caught fixing an embarrassing mistake.

Perhaps more significant, however, the error came just as the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to examine the constitutionality of the State Department’s policy on Jerusalem. The litigants in a case scheduled to be heard by the court in the fall session want their Jerusalem-born son to have his birthplace listed as “Jerusalem, Israel” on his passport, as is permitted by a 2002 federal law.

But the State Department has not implemented that law because it says the law violates the department’s mandate to set foreign policy. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is so sensitive, the State Department maintains, that it is critical that U.S. passports only say “Jerusalem.”

Presidents often have found themselves at odds with Congress over Jerusalem. President Truman favored an “international regime for Jerusalem,” while Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton all believed that negotiation should resolve the status of Jerusalem.

Congress has been more hawkish on the issue. In 1995, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which mandated the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from its current location in Tel Aviv.

But since 1998, every sitting president has suspended the relocation via an executive order that is reissued every six months.

Long-needed renovations at the U.S. Embassy building in Tel Aviv have not been carried out due to uncertainty over how long the embassy opposite the beachfront will remain there.