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‘Nobody Wants Chicago 1968’: Democratic Convention Fight Looms Over Israel, Foreign Policy

From the founder of the Arab American Institute to a main negotiator of the Iran deal, the drafters of the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform have bigger differences than just Clinton vs. Sanders.


In 2004, the Democratic Party platform said, “We support the creation of a democratic Palestinian state dedicated to living in peace and security side by side with the Jewish State of Israel.”

In 2008, it said the United States should “take an active role to help secure a lasting settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and support the creation of a “viable” and democratic Palestinian state.

The current platform says “a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples, would contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity.”

And what of the party platform — the Democrats’ overarching vision and principles for the coming four years — in 2016?

“Will language have to change? Of course,” Jim Zogby told Foreign Policy, shortly after the Democratic National Committee announced he was selected by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to join the committee drafting the platform that will be adopted at the party’s convention in July. Zogby wants this year’s platform to elevate Palestinian rights and use the word “occupation” to refer to the nearly five-decade Israeli presence in land Palestinians claim for a future state.

It’s part of what Zogby described as a need for the Democrats’ policy language, particularly on Israel-Palestine, to “be toughened up a bit to reflect a new consensus.”

Zogby, a Sanders foreign-policy advisor, has been part of the DNC’s executive body for a decade, including as co-chair of the resolutions committee and co-founder of its “Ethnic Caucus.” A Maronite Catholic of Lebanese descent, Zogby founded the Arab American Institute and has long advocated for Palestinians. In 1988, as a member of a larger platform committee, he had to push for mere recognition of the Israel-Palestine issue.

While non-binding, these inclusions would be an important reflection of the more “even-handed” approach that Sanders, the strongest-running Jewish presidential candidate in U.S. history, has taken toward the conflict, Zogby said.

“Israelis are concerned about what is happening to their country because of this occupation,” he said. “We have to be able to talk about it, too.”


To Zogby and other Sanders supporters, the independent Vermonter’s 20 states won in the Democratic nominating contest have given his message a mandate. In conceding appointments on the drafting committee, the DNC has acknowledged Sanders’s clout among the party electorate. And Sanders’s picks, sure to clash with those selected by Democratic leaders and the more hawkish Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and likely nominee, are his most powerful statement yet that he intends to fight for the party’s future beyond the convention in Philadelphia.

Still, the goal is consensus, Zogby emphasized — not provoking the kind of chaos seen in the 1968 Democratic Convention, when protests over the Vietnam War erupted in violence.

“We’re going to have a much less hawkish approach,” Zogby said of Sanders’s picks compared to Clinton’s. But, he continued, “nobody wants Chicago 1968. It’s going to take two sides to have this work.”

Observers and Republican leaders alike expressed fears of a violent and contested GOP convention. But now the Democratic contest between Clinton and Sanders also threatens, as the senator himself put it Monday to the Associated Press, to get “messy.”

Hours before, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a prominent Jewish congresswoman from Florida, announced that the DNC had granted Sanders five seats on the drafting committee to Clinton’s six, proportional to votes.

Several of Sanders’s other backers on the committee have also been critical of Israel. Among them is Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, who has advocated for more consideration of Palestinian rights, but also emphases Israel’s security. Also selected was Cornel West, a civil rights activist and provocative scholar, who has said actions of Hamas, a designated terrorist group, “pale in the face of the U.S. supported Israeli slaughters of innocent civilians.”

Most of the committee members who were chosen by Clinton and Wasserman-Schultz are Clinton surrogates or Democratic Party veterans.

Clinton pick Wendy Sherman was a top State Department official and lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. Sherman, who is Jewish, called the divisiveness the historic agreement inspired “painful” after it was signed last summer. The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the drafting committee picks. 

Of the four drafters selected by Wasserman-Schultz, former Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) helped push through strict Iran sanctions in 2010. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chosen as the drafting committee’s chairman, is ranking member on the House panel investigating the attacks in Benghazi. But he has been highly critical of the GOP-led investigation, which he says is politically motivated against Clinton. He endorsed her last month. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 authorization that serves as legal foundation for the “war on terror,” has declined to endorse either Clinton or Sanders.

Following the 2009 Gaza war, Lee urged the Obama administration to pressure Israel to allow greater humanitarian relief to the Palestinian territory and defended a U.N. report that found evidence of war crimes committed by both sides but was strongly rejected by Israel. Lee, like the rest of her congressional colleagues on the platform drafting committee, has been endorsed by J Street, a liberal Jewish American advocacy group critical of the Israeli government.

Sanders and Clinton, who both describe themselves as “100 percent pro-Israel,” sparred viciously in the most recent Democratic presidential debate in New York last month. Sanders pushed Clinton to similarly call Israel’s 2014 strikes on Gaza “disproportionate,” underscoring growing tensions between Washington and Jerusalem as well as among Democrats and Jewish Americans.

Though facing an insurmountable deficit in the delegate count, Sanders has dug in. Now, the convention’s drafting committee promises similar sparks.

Still, Sanders is dismissive of concerns that deepening divisions could disrupt the convention and doom Democrats in November.

“So what,” Sanders said in the AP interview. “Democracy is messy.”

Photo credit: Andrew Burton / Staff