Why won’t Democrats go as far as Clinton did on Israel?


The tension in the air at the St. Louis Grand Hotel was palpable as the Democratic National Convention’s platform drafting committee’s meeting stretched well beyond its scheduled early Friday evening adjournment and into the early hours of last Saturday morning.

{mosads}After a spirited and, at times, contentious, daylong set of debates on issues such as whether the party should endorse a $15-per-hour minimum wage, support abolishing the death penalty, and back a carbon tax on fossil fuel use, the 15 committee members tensed as they prepared for the final, and perhaps most highly anticipated, amendment to its draft platform.

Crafted with “direct input” from Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), according to James Zogby, a Sanders campaign appointee to the drafting committee, the amendment called for “an end to [Israeli] occupation and illegal settlements so that they [Palestinians] may live in independence, sovereignty, and dignity.”

At first blush, the language of the amendment appeared noncontroversial. After all, the Obama administration has spent the past eight years pursuing these same policy goals. And presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, as President Obama’s first secretary of State, spoke out vigorously against Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestinian land and the imperative of ending Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, an occupation which just entered its 50th year.

The Obama administration “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions,” Clinton stated emphatically in a 2009 press conference with the Egyptian foreign minister. “We think it is in the best interests of the [negotiating] effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease.”

And in a 2010 keynote address to the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), Clinton spoke proudly of being “the first person ever associated with an American administration to call for a Palestinian state and the two-state solution” as first lady in 1998, an unpopular stance at the time which earned her bipartisan congressional opprobrium and a renunciation by the Clinton administration.

“For Palestinians,” Clinton told ATFP, “a two-state solution would mean an independent, viable, and sovereign state of their and your own; the freedom to travel, to do business, and govern themselves. Palestinians would have the right to chart their own destinies at last. The indignity of occupation would end and a new era of opportunity, promise, and justice would begin.”

However, despite Clinton’s previous demands that Israel freeze settlement expansion and end the indignity of military occupation, committee members appointed by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee tag-teamed to vote en bloc to defeat the resolution 8-5, with former Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.) speaking for the opposition and decrying the amendment as “one-sided.”

This charge riled Zogby, who told this author in an interview that Berman’s accusation was “nonsense. The platform language up front is so one-sided” in Israel’s favor. “To talk about [Israeli] pluralism and democracy when you have an occupation, with Palestinians humiliated on a daily basis … it’s like saying ending Jim Crow is one-sided.”

The vote highlighted a paradox between official U.S. policy and the Democratic Party’s unwillingness to recognize it. “The folks on the Clinton side, they know better,” claimed Zogby. “They know it is bad policy, but they think it is good politics” not to criticize Israeli actions.

This disconnect stems from “a mistaken notion that this issue will resonate almost exclusively with Jewish voters,” claimed Zogby. But “they’re not going to lose Jewish voters over criticizing Israeli occupation.” Zogby’s analysis is borne out by a March 2016 Pew Research Center survey, which found that just 17 percent of Jewish Americans believe Israeli settlements on Palestinian land further Israel’s security and that 61 percent believe that Israel and a Palestinian state can peacefully coexist.

And among younger Jewish Americans, the criticism of Israeli policy runs even deeper, according to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who told a closed-door gathering in Jerusalem earlier this year that only 42 percent of Jewish American students believe Israel wants peace, 38 percent believe it is a “civilized and Western” country, and 31 percent believe it is a democracy.

Instead of holding to a “myth of power” of the Jewish American community’s attachment to an Israel-right-or-wrong approach, the Democratic Party should be more concerned that this line will cost it support “among people who look for politicians to speak the truth, who have an instinct for authenticity,” Zogby warned.

But truth-telling about Israel and the Palestinians was at a premium at the Democratic Party’s platform meeting. Cornel West, the philosophy professor and activist appointed to the committee by the Sanders campaign to serve as its prophetic voice, decried Israel’s military occupation as “evil” and challenged the Democratic Party to “tell the truth” about its existence. Because, West argued, “we can never fully respect the Palestinians unless we can name what they’re up against, the boots on their necks.”

It was the party’s unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of Israel’s military occupation which played a large role in West abstaining from endorsing the draft platform to the full platform committee, which meets in Orlando on July 8-9.

There, the party will have the opportunity to override the draft platform committee’s ill-considered decision to avoid calling on Israel to end its illegal colonization and military occupation of Palestinian land, and harmonize the party’s platform with official U.S. policy. As Zogby noted in St. Louis, the Democratic Party “can’t think with two brains.”

Ruebner is the author of “Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace” and policy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

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