The Democratic Party’s Israel Crack-Up

The contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has exposed faultlines between Democrats on Israel and Palestine.

US Democratic Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US Democratic Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The full weight of the Democratic Party is rallying behind Hillary Clinton in an effort to mow down her Republican opponent Donald Trump. But while Bernie Sanders will no longer try to flip superdelegates to his side, he has yet to formally concede. He’s holding on to his leverage, intent on taking his fight about the party’s platform to the floor of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, the site of the Democratic National Convention. One of the fights will be over the language in the party’s platform on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The wrangling between allies of Sanders and Clinton has already started in animated, public hearings about the platform’s language on Jerusalem, settlements, and the use of the word “occupation.” The discussions highlight the divergent trends inside the Democratic Party on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — one driven primarily by support for Israel, and another more in tune with Palestinian needs. The wider debate about the Middle East also reflects the different relationships Clinton and Sanders have with the concept of American power.

The fight about language on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be an even bigger and more raucous version of the one that erupted on the floor of the Democratic convention in 2012 over wording about Jerusalem. Although the United States does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and keeps it embassy in Tel Aviv, the 2008 Democratic platform stated, “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel.” When the language on Jerusalem was left out of the 2012 platform, Democrats came under came under heavy criticism by pro-Israel groups and Republicans. President Barack Obama moved to reinstate the language — leading to an awkward televised moment, as convention chair Antonio Villaraigosa had to retake the voice vote three times, finally approving the amendment amid much booing.

Sanders seems keen not just to reopen that debate, but to widen it. James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute and one of Sanders’s representatives on the drafting committee, said the Democratic platform should not include any language that “litigates the peace process.” That means he wants to keep out all language not just on Jerusalem, the status of which he feels should be determined through the peace process, but also the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the borders of a future Palestinian state. In the first meeting of the drafting committee, Zogby had a testy exchange with Robert Wexler, a Clinton ally and former Florida congressman, who was testifying as an expert. In his opening statement, Wexler said that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, yet contradicted himself by saying “we shouldn’t litigate the resolutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of the Democratic platform.” Zogby retorted: “Except for the issues you do want to litigate?”

Zogby also wants to push for wording that reflects shifting perceptions of Israel within the Democratic Party, whose members are less willing than they once were to express unconditional support for Israel. A Pew Research Center poll in April this year showed that the proportion of self-described liberals who are likely to sympathize with Palestinians has doubled in two years. Millennial liberals in particular are more likely to be critical of Israel than their older counterparts.

Zogby told me he wants the language to reflect this emerging consensus, and acknowledge that U.S. policy on the conflict needs to go beyond advocating for a two-state solution and Israeli security, but recognize that there is an occupation which must end and that Palestinians should feel secure as well. Wexler has already pushed back on including the word “occupation” to describe Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories.

Zogby has been advocating for the Palestine cause for decades. In fact, as senior advisor to the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson during the 1980s, he fought to have the Democratic Party recognize “’the rights of the Palestinian people to safety, self-determination and an independent state.” The concept of supporting a Palestinian state was completely unheard of in terms of U.S. policy at the time, and Democratic party members were walking around “like the sky was going to fall,” Zogby told me.

More than two decades later, supporting a two-state solution is established U.S. policy. So it’s no surprise that Zogby is willing to enter the fray on this fight again. But Sanders? He’s been much quieter on the issue over the course of his career.

Foreign policy isn’t the senator’s forte, and, in his stump speeches, he focused his energy of on income inequality, reforming the campaign finance system, and alleviating college debt. Sure, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders did speak forcefully in 1988 against Israel’s “reprehensible” behavior as it tried to quash the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. But in the three decades since, he has been mostly silent on the rights of Palestinians. In the Senate, Sanders was not identified as someone that Palestinian or Arab organizations could work with to help rally support for their cause — not even the Arab American Institute, headed by Zogby, according to former staffers.

Sanders also never registered any objections to resolutions that fully supported Israel’s military responses in Gaza or Lebanon. In 2014, 2012, 2009, Senate resolutions supporting Israeli military operations against Gaza as a “right to self-defense” were passed unanimously — with no objection from Sanders. The Vermont senator did not introduce any separate resolutions to call attention to the suffering of Palestinian civilians.

In fact, in August 2014, Sanders got into a heated argument with constituents who faulted him for not actively condemning Israel’s military assault. Sanders got agitated and threatened to call the police before deflecting the questions by raising the issue of the Islamic State.

So it was only during the presidential campaign that Sanders, who is Jewish, clearly identified the Israel-Palestine conflict as another issue on which he could draw a sharp contrast with the Democratic Party establishment and excite its progressive base. He surprised many in policy and activism circles when he shattered an American taboo during a contentious Democratic debate in New York in April by speaking vocally about the suffering of Palestinians.

Sanders described Israel’s military operations in Gaza in 2014 as “disproportionate,” a term U.S. government officials have rarely used. “As somebody who is 100 percent pro-Israel, in the long run … we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” he said, as he went on to describe the devastation wrought on Gaza during the war.

This shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but on the presidential trail it stands out because it diverges from the narrow pro-Israel tone most candidates adopt. But what Sanders had understood after his 2014 altercation was that the progressive base felt strongly about the Israeli occupation, and that as a candidate who would rail against the millionaires and billionaires, he had little to lose and everything to gain by speaking up for the Palestinians.

“The big donors aren’t where the liberal progressives are, and conventional wisdom has it that you cannot be a serious candidate if you don’t have the big donors on your side,” said one longtime activist on the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict. “But Sanders has shown that you can do this without the donors.”

Unless you’re Hillary Clinton. If Sanders has brought the frank discussion about the conflict to the national stage, Clinton’s statements on the campaign trail have been driven by the traditional imperatives of campaigning and stood in stark contrast not only to her views as secretary of state but also those she expressed as first lady.

She was the first representatives of an American government to call for a Palestinian state, as first lady in May 1998 during a Q & A session with young Israelis and Arabs.

“I think that it will be in the long-term interest of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state, to be a state that is responsible for its citizens’ well-being, a state that has responsibility for providing education and health care and economic opportunity to its citizens,” she said.

The Israelis were furious and the White House quickly distanced itself from her comments, saying she was expressing a personal view.

Later that year, Clinton traveled to Gaza and was welcomed as a heroine of the Palestinian cause for statehood, receiving thunderous applause as she spoke in front of a gathering of the Palestinian National Council, in the presence of then President Yasser Arafat.

“Thank you for witnessing with us the construction of our country, and I hope you will be able to be with us to witness our Palestinian state,” said Suha Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman’s wife.

But then as now, the reality of campaigning in the United States meant that by the time Clinton was exploring a run for a Senate seat in New York in the summer of 1999, she had changed her tune. Clinton said that she personally considered “Jerusalem the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel” and would favor the United States moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. With the status of Jerusalem the subject of intensive negotiations, the White House had to again distance itself from her comments.

Then as secretary of state, Clinton spoke eloquently about the human needs of Palestinians in a March 2009 donor conference after the Gaza war. She emphasized that “a child growing up in Gaza without shelter, health care, or an education has the same right to go to school, see a doctor, and live with a roof over her head as a child growing up in your country or mine.”

At the end of a press conference, the Egyptian and other Arab journalists in attendance erupted in applause, a reaction no secretary of state had ever received.

Now as a presidential candidate, Clinton has not deviated from the standard pro-Israel line. When asked during the New York debate this April whether she agreed with Sanders’s description of Israeli military actions as disproportionate, Clinton steered clear of any expression of sympathy for Palestinians, focusing squarely on Israel’s right to self-defense and the strong alliance between the two countries.

Clinton may be keeping her powder dry should she win the White House and find herself in a position where she will need to privately press Israeli officials for concessions. Clinton once described herself as the “yeller-in-chief” in the Obama administration’s interactions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was also the man she infuriated when she made her statement about Palestinian statehood in 1988 — and will most likely still be prime minister if she gets to the White House.

But Clinton’s public statements today don’t just gloss over the worsening conditions of Palestinians — her position also ignores the new political reality in Israel itself. The country has experienced a sharp right-wing turn with the recent appointment of ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister, who is known for his incendiary comments about Palestinians. Even the man Lieberman replaced, Moshe Yaalon, publicly regretted that “extremist and dangerous elements have overrun Israel as well as the Likud party.”

After two Palestinians launched an attack in a Tel Aviv market this week, killing four people, even the city’s mayor, Ron Huldai, blamed the attack on the occupation.

“We might be the only country in the world where another nation is under occupation without civil rights,” he said on Israeli army radio. “You can’t hold people in a situation of occupation and hope they’ll reach the conclusion everything is alright.”

The argument that Sanders’s allies will make is: If Israelis themselves use the word “occupation,” why can’t the Democratic Party? While Clinton will be confirmed as the Democratic nominee at the July convention, both candidates will shape the national conversation on this issue going forward. They are also tasked with forging a way forward on the Syria crisis, which has left half a million people dead and over 11 million people displaced. If Clinton seems out of touch with the changing reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Sanders has a Syria problem — a topic that I will tackle in my next column.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB / Getty Images

Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of "The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas

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