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Inside the Democratic Party’s Showdown Over Israel-Palestine
How Democrats changed their decades-old approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict — and why the fight isn’t over yet.
The meeting at a St. Louis hotel had run for more than nine hours and stretched into the night by the time the main reason Jim Zogby was there came up. As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s primary point person on the intractable Israeli-Palestine conflict, long a political landmine in U.S. presidential politics, Zogby was ready for a fight.
“We do not often see the Arab-Israeli conflict through Palestinian eyes,” Zogby began, according to an informal transcript of the meeting obtained by Foreign Policy.
He was pushing an amendment calling for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.” American policymakers, he noted, have for decades referred to the Israeli presence in land Palestinians claim for a future state as an “occupation.”
“We have to have the ability in our politics to say what we say in our policy,” he said.
Wendy Sherman, a Jewish-American and the top State Department negotiator on the historic Iran nuclear deal, was representing presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton at the platform talks and pushed back, firmly but gently. She told Zogby that she sympathized with both innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians, but that his amendment went too far.
“I have been with teenagers in Ramallah where I wished I could disappear into the floor because they were so angry and in such pain,” Sherman said. “I have been with Israeli young people who live with risk and terror and fear every single day.”
She left former California Rep. Howard Berman, an “unaligned” Democratic National Committee pick who helped push through strict Iran sanctions in 2010, to play bad cop.
Berman said the amendment would be “a terrible mistake” because it was “one-sided” toward the Palestinians. “It’s not our time, I think, to select out things which understandably aggravate many people, but only on one side of the conflict,” he said.
At issue in the talks was the party’s platform, a formal distillation — to be presented for ratification at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia — of the goals Clinton would pursue as president. In practice, the platforms are exercises in pleasing each party’s core constituencies but rarely carry substantive weight. Yet the late-night debate between Sanders’s allies on one side and the DNC and Clinton’s allies on the other was a half-hour snapshot of perhaps the most politically fraught fight within the Democratic Party today. Democrats have seen a seismic shift on the Israel-Palestine issue in the nearly eight years of the Obama administration — with a strong push to the left by Sanders, the first Jewish presidential candidate to win a primary.
In one of the most heated exchanges of the unexpectedly contested nomination fight, the Vermont socialist used an April debate in New York to push the former secretary of state to call Israel’s 2014 strikes on Gaza disproportionate. She refused.
An unofficial transcript of the Israel-Palestine debate at the drafting committee’s last meeting — as well as a copy of that portion of the final draft of the platform, which has yet to be released — shows just how far the party has moved on the issue.
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,” reflecting longtime U.S. policy.
The new version has some notable differences, even if neither Sanders nor Clinton got all they wanted.
Sanders’s allies did not ultimately achieve their goal of inserting the word “occupation.” But for the first time, the platform explicitly asserts Palestinians’ “independence, sovereignty, and dignity” alongside Israeli security.
Early Saturday, the drafting committee adopted the final language for the 2016 platform without Zogby’s amendment, which had lost 8-5, with only Sanders’s picks voting for it.
Still, compared with past platforms, the subtle shifts are significant.
“We will continue to work toward a two-state solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict negotiated directly by the parties that guarantees Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders,” it reads, “and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty and dignity.”
Underscoring the continued combustibility of the issue, both the DNC and supporters of Clinton and Sanders have kept the seemingly small but significant changes quiet. None of the statements on the platform from the DNC and the campaigns in the days since the drafter’s final meeting mention the Israel-Palestine debate, and neither the Clinton campaign nor the DNC provided comment.
In an interview, Zogby said the presumptive nominee’s allies peppered him anxiously before the meeting last weekend to finalize the platform.
“‘What’s gonna happen? What’s gonna happen? What are you going to do?’” he recounted to Foreign Policy. “Did I know we’d lose? Of course I knew we’d lose. But we ended the deadly silence that says you can’t talk about this.”
Typically, the larger platform committee, which will meet July 8-9 in Orlando, Florida, adopts the final language approved by the drafters, and the platform’s ratification at the convention is largely pro forma.
But should he choose, Sanders has enough power to bring the more controversial language to Philadelphia as a minority plank, which could force a debate on Israel-Palestine on the convention floor.
Sanders has said he will vote for Clinton but indicated he will not formally endorse her until his key demands are met.
The exchanges among the delegates at the late-night meeting, according to the transcript, show just how much distance remains.
Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Sanders pick and one of only two Muslim-American lawmakers, urged adoption of Zogby’s amendment on Friday, according to the transcript. “I know that this is an incredibly difficult issue for many of us,” he acknowledged during the meeting. “I respect that, I appreciate that.”
Business executive Bonnie Shaefer, another DNC selection and a gay Zionist Jew, said Israel is “the only place in the Middle East where I can walk down the street with my wife hand-in-hand and not be afraid.”
Zogby responded that while Shaefer may be able to hold her wife’s hand in Tel Aviv, unafraid, he can’t travel without risk of harassment. He was once held at the airport for seven hours — though he’d flown to attend a dinner at Israel’s legislature at the invitation of former Vice President Al Gore.
Cornel West, an outspoken Sanders surrogate, civil rights activist, and fiery scholar, drew parallels between slavery and the Palestinian experience.
“All we’re trying to say is, the Democratic Party must tell the truth,” he said. “We can never fully respect the Palestinians unless we can name what they’re up against, the boot on their necks.”
Zogby has spent much of his adult life working on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Democratic policy. A Maronite Catholic of Lebanese descent, Zogby founded the Arab American Institute, a nonprofit to encourage Arab American leadership. He has been deeply involved with the party platform for decades, including as part of the DNC’s executive body. In 1988, when he pushed for mere mention of the “p-word” — Palestinian — as a member of the larger platform committee, he said fellow Democrats told him he would destroy the party.
It was then that he first faced Sherman, the Clinton advocate he would debate some 30 years later in St. Louis.
As the session wound down, Sherman quipped, “He and I haven’t grown any older since 1988, when we tread this same territory.”
Photo credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/Staff