Advocates for greater recognition of Palestinian positions think that the progressive surge spurred by Bernie Sanders gives them their best shot yet at reorienting the Democratic platform at next month’s convention. But they’ve run into a party establishment that insists the position won’t change — especially with Hillary Clinton, who has deep ties to Israel, at the top of the ticket.
The drafting committee approved an early draft of the party platform at its final meeting in St. Louis early Saturday, one that mostly hews to what Clinton had wanted on Israel.
But the issue does not entirely go away — later this month the full platform committee will meet and debate the draft, and even after a vote at that level, any draft will need to pass the full convention floor.
Warning flags were planted as the platform discussions got underway.
“Those who litigate the particulars of a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians by fighting for controversial language in the Democratic platform are severely misguided,” said former California Rep. Henry Waxman, once a senior Jewish lawmaker on Capitol Hill. “Make no mistake: Inserting unnecessarily contentious changes to the platform would serve only to hurt our nominee in November and undermine the prospect of a two-state solution during the next administration.”
Still, members of both sides of the debate came out of Saturday feeling they scored at least a bit of a victory.
“The new language breaks with the party’s practice of framing its aim of establishing a Palestinian state solely in terms of Israel’s interests,” said a statement from Jeremy Ben-Ami, president and founder of J Street, which advocates for Israel but sometimes breaks with the positions of the Israeli government.
“By including parallel acknowledgment of Israeli and Palestinian rights, the party underscores its belief that the only viable resolution to the conflict — a two-state solution — requires recognizing the fates of the two peoples are intertwined,” he said.
J Street signaled it would push to keep the language throughout the process. And the left is expected to raise the issue again at further meetings.
Still, Democratic stalwarts and those close to the committee drafting the platform, however, minimize the effort on the left. They say they’re confident the party’s stance on Israel will remain unchanged and reflect the long-standing record of Hillary Clinton as the party’s presumptive nominee.
Those seeking a shift, however, are cautiously optimistic about the trend of the party’s stance and their power to shift it. For one thing, Sanders’ speaking up for Palestinian rights during the campaign gave new prominence and legitimacy to a viewpoint that the mainstream of the Democratic Party has until now largely shunned. And for another, the platform committee has some members dedicated to pushing the issue.
“We’re at a turning point now,” philosophy professor and drafting committee member Cornel West said at a recent committee hearing on the issue. “For too long the Democratic Party’s been beholden to (pro-Israel lobby) AIPAC and didn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinian brothers and sisters.”
Sanders criticizes Israel
Sanders, who is Jewish, has been one of the most prominent politicians to forcefully speak out against Israel for what he has called “disproportionate responses” to Palestinian actions.
Sanders gave a detailed list of critiques in a March speech that he delivered from Utah instead of going to the Washington conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which drew every other presidential candidate.
Sanders criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, withholding of tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority and expansion of settlements in the West Bank, saying settlement growth “undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security as well.”
But as he comes to terms with Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sanders is expected to use what little leverage he has left to focus on the domestic policy issues that buoyed his campaign into a national movement, not Israel.
Several Democrats familiar with the debate over the platform say that while this issue is important, it is not one of Sanders’ top issues and not expected to be the policy area where he wants to make his mark and is willing to fall on his sword.
That leaves the vocal progressive wing to fend for itself on the issue, but two prominent supporters — West and Arab American Institute President James Zogby — both sit on the 15-member platform drafting committee. They aggressively pushed the issue at hearings on the party roadmap last week in Washington.
Sanders’ backers want to exclude references to Jerusalem as belonging wholly to Israel, which Palestinians contest, and consider language that labels Israeli settlements in the West Bank “an occupation,” a notion adamantly opposed by Clinton supporters who warn it would undermine the peace process.
At the hearing, Zogby and West clashed politely with former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, who currently heads the S. Daniel Abramson Center for Middle East Peace. In Wexler’s testimony, he argued that the Democratic platform was not the place to litigate views on Israel, nor should it diverge substantially from the United States’ long-standing position in support of Israel.
While the Sanders’ camp was not able to get language on “occupation” of the Palestinians into the platform, Zogby said he was happy the issue was debated and called the language “less egregious” than in the past. He said he would continue to make his case throughout the process.
Concerned that Zogby and West’s viewpoint may be gaining traction at least in the public narrative, Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina representative and now a CNN commentator, sent a letter signed by 60 African-American politicians around the country to the co-chairs of the Platform Committee last week urging them to stick to the traditional language on Israel — a counterpoint to West, a prominent member of the black community.
“The Mideast planks of the previous platform were carefully crafted and have served us well,” wrote Sellers, a Clinton supporter. “We would be well served to stick closely to our previous platform language and ensure that any changes … do nothing to undermine the principles that have given such strength and clarity to our previous platforms.”
Platform tweaks expected
Several sources familiar with the drafting process had expected that the language of the platform would be changed somewhat — but not dramatically — to reflect more about Palestinian aspirations rather than a lessening of support for Israel.
And at the end of the day, the platform is expected to reflect the nominee, and Clinton has a long and detailed track record on supporting Israel in efforts to find a two-state solution throughout her time in the Senate and as secretary of state.
“I think the debate on the facts will clearly reflect the traditional and longstanding position and the same (position) that Secretary Clinton has long advocated, and I have every confidence that she will see that the platform reflects her commitments,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
He said while his group has found some of Sanders’ comments during the campaign “disturbing,” and there is concern about attempts to “incite and excite” the left wing, he believes that the party will largely stick to its current stand on Israel.
After the meetings last week, Wexler said he is confident that the areas of agreement will rule the day, while there will be some acknowledgment of the suffering of the Palestinian people.