Getting ready for a showdown on Israel at the Democratic convention
© Greg Nash

Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles at the time, froze like a deer in the headlights at the last Democratic National Convention (DNC) as he presided over what he presumed would be an uncontroversial voice vote to amend the party's platform to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.


But the convention delegates would have none of it as they roared their opposition, each time more loudly than the last, as Villaraigosa stumbled through calling the question three times until he arbitrarily decided the ayes had enough votes. (An audio analysis obtained by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation — of which I am policy director — found that nearly two-thirds of the delegates opposed the motion.)

This blatantly anti-democratic maneuvering dramatically exposed for the first time a rift between the grassroots base of the Democratic Party, no longer comfortable with hidebound pro-Israel orthodoxies, and the party's elite, determined to maintain the status quo.

During the past four years, public opinion polling has reaffirmed that the base of the Democratic Party, especially its more progressive wing, is becoming increasingly alienated from Israel's repressive policies, and is demonstrating increasing support for Palestinian rights. For example, an April 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that liberal Democrats — for the first time — now sympathize more with Palestinians than with Israel by a 40 percent to 33 percent margin.

The bruising Democratic primary battle between former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGeorge Takei: US has hit a new low under Trump Democrats slam Puerto Rico governor over 'shameful' comments, back protesters Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBullock: I would not have endorsed health care for undocumented immigrants on debate stage Harris faces pressure to define policy proposals Biden campaign rips 'Medicare for All,' calls on Dems to protect Affordable Care Act MORE (Vt.) amplified this divide. At this year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, Clinton, the party's establishment candidate, vowed to "never allow Israel’s adversaries to think a wedge can be driven between us," pledging to "take our alliance to the next level."

Sanders, the self-professed democratic socialist, whose insurgent campaign has shifted the bounds of permissible discourse within the party, chastised Clinton during a debate for her AIPAC speech. "I heard virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people," Sanders noted. "We cannot continue to be one-sided. There are two sides to the issue."

Not surprisingly, the same Pew survey found the candidates reflecting the differing views of their supporters. Whereas Clinton voters sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians by a whopping 47-27 margin, Sanders voters sympathized with Palestinians over Israel by a 39-33 margin.

With the primaries having drawn to a close and Clinton declaring enough pledged delegates to win the nomination, the Democratic Party will try to heal the wounds between its wings and enter the general election unified. But on the question of Palestine, this glaring division will be difficult to paper over.

Sanders's appointees to the platform drafting committee include long-time Democratic Party insider and Arab American Institute President James Zogby and academic Cornel West, both of whom support the Palestinian civil society-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and corporations which profit from its human rights abuses of Palestinians. A Sanders campaign aide told The Washington Post that a more balanced position on Israel and the Palestinians will be one of the top two priority changes they will push for in this year’s platform. In response, the Clinton campaign vowed that her "delegates will work to ensure that the party platform reflects" her pro-Israel views, which include a firm commitment, expressed in a public letter to Democratic Party mega-donor Haim Saban, to suppress the BDS movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality.

This differing approach between the campaigns was dramatized during a DNC platform hearing last week as former Rep. Robert Wexler (Fla.), a Clinton supporter, clashed with West over the appropriateness of referring to Israel's military occupation — and the need to end it — in the platform.

But to relegate support for Palestinian rights to the sole purview of the Sanders camp is to oversimplify the dynamics at play. One of the party's appointees to the platform drafting committee, Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), has been a longstanding advocate of a more balanced U.S. policy. And even one of Clinton's appointees, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.), suggested that the party platform could do a better job of elaborating "more clearly the wishes, the desires, the aspirations of the Palestinian people and their hope for justice and for peace and equality."

Gutiérrez is right. The party's platform of four years ago reads today like an anachronism from a bygone era in which it was still considered taboo to challenge unwavering support for Israel's policies toward Palestinians. The plank on the Middle East is almost wholly dedicated to the party's "unshakable commitment to Israel's security." The party did include a perfunctory nod to supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state. But it did so not because Palestinians deserve to be free from Israeli military occupation, but because doing so would "help sustain Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state."

This month marks the beginning of Israel's 50th year of occupying the Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. And next year will mark the beginning of the 70th year of Israel's dispossession of the vast majority of Palestinians from their homeland to create a separate-and-unequal Jewish State that disallows Palestinian refugees from returning home and consigns Palestinians in Israel to second-class citizenship.

The Democratic Party is far from unified on the merits of continuing to support Israel's apartheid rule over Palestinians. The battle over the party's platform language on Israel and the Palestinians could make for a hot summer in Philadelphia.

Ruebner is 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.