The Democratic Party’s left and moderate wings continue to reach tentative compromises on a number of issues that once fiercely divided them. But there’s one perennial political sticking point that’s proving immune to the party’s kumbaya moment: Israel.
In recent years, a vocal and influential chorus of progressives have disagreed privately, and at times rather publicly, with the party’s conventional wisdom on Israel. Led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), these progressives have challenged the Democratic establishment consensus view on Israel, vocally criticizing the government there, especially its treatment of the Palestinians.
That progressive push has continued as supporters of Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden meet to put together the Democratic National Committee’s 2020 platform. Draft language of the section on Israel, which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, offers some compromises and concessions for each side, those familiar with the issue say. But it notably leaves out a word that progressives believe is foundational to the issue. It doesn’t mention Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank.
To some Democrats, a lack of explicit acknowledgement of Israeli occupation—a term that former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both used in various contexts—casts a retrograde pall over a platform that is otherwise moving in a progressive direction. That feeling is broadly shared among progressives involved with the platform process, who believe the addition would state the obvious.
“The reality is that this isn’t about policy, but about politics. There’s no real substantive disagreement that the Palestinians live under Israeli occupation,” said Matt Duss, a top foreign policy adviser to Sanders, who told The Daily Beast it was probable that progressives would offer an occupation amendment to the platform. “At a moment when Americans are mobilizing against racism and inequality here, we think it’s important for the Democratic Party to acknowledge the reality there… There’s no good reason why Democrats shouldn’t be able to say in 2020 what Barack Obama said in 2009.”
Other Democrats counter that the current language is, in fact, a reflection of where much of the party, not to mention the country, is on the issue, and warn that appearing to abandon traditional pro-Israel views risks political disaster.
When the platform drafting committee meets on July 27 to approve the document, progressives are likely to file an amendment that would add in explicit language about occupation. The hope is to spark, at the very least, a serious debate. Whether or not that amendment is approved, there are Democrats who see the issue as an emotionally charged proxy for a broader debate over the direction of the party’s foreign policy.
“The whole occupation argument is kind of inflated,” said a former Obama administration official who worked on Middle East issues. “It’s a vehicle for a bigger wrestling match over who controls the party—the progressives or the moderates. If the moderates won the primary, they control the process, which is ultimately why ‘occupation’ isn’t in there.”
There’s a wariness in some corners, said the official, that the skirmish could lead to a heated fight that isn’t even productive. “I just think it’s the wrong debate,” the official said. “I hope what [progressives] don’t do is make this a huge fight and create a dynamic where the story is progressives lost, because they didn’t lose.”
In the six joint “unity task forces” introduced between Biden and Sanders on immigration, climate change, and criminal justice reform, among other issues in mid-May, foreign policy was notably absent, despite Biden making the topic a prominent part of his campaign to become the nominee. The other task forces have all released their recommendations, leaving the party with a messy hole on issues of global significance, including Israel.
The draft platform, which was approved out of committee before a final vote, states that Democrats “recognize the worth of every Israeli and every Palestinian” and support a “negotiated two-state solution.” It staunchly opposes the boycott, divest, and sanction movement, but also says it qualifies as constitutionally protected speech. It says Jerusalem is the “undivided” capital of Israel but it also opposes expansion of Israeli settlements, which is being pushed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli prime minister.
Within the DNC, which is tasked with binding together longstanding disagreements for the sake of agreement against the Republican Party, one progressive has been an especially outspoken vessel for advocating a change that, in his estimation, would more accurately represent the political views of Democratic voters on the issue.
Jim Zogby, a DNC member who is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, conceded that the party has made some progress in addressing his and other progressives’ concerns, but that it remains inflexible on a few key points. “They still won’t let the word occupation into the platform,” Zogby said. “You would think there would be more openness to deal with political realities, and yet, they’re still stuck.”
Similarly, the same outspoken faction of the party also believes that a platform which appears to support the Netanyahu government too fully could alienate battleground states needed for Biden’s electoral coalition. “What I’m fearful of is if you take a platform that is 20 years behind the times, you could dampen enthusiasm in the Arab community and that could cost votes in Michigan,” said Zogby, also tossing in Pennsylvania and Ohio, three states included as possible targets for Biden’s path to victory.
There are signs that some parts of the electorate may be less supportive of the Israeli government’s actions than they may have been in the past. Increasing numbers of Democratic lawmakers have been willing to criticize the country’s leadership and decisions, particularly on Netanyahu’s threat to annex the West Bank. Some surveys have shown shifts of opinion on things like ironclad American military aid to Israel.
Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank, commissioned a poll in September 2019 that demonstrated a shifting view towards U.S. aid to Israel, showing that 45 percent of voters support reducing aid to Israel on the basis of human rights violations, while 34 percent were opposed.
But a group aligned with the traditional Democratic establishment view, Democratic Majority for Israel, commissioned a separate poll that touches on the party platform specifically, and it provides a stark counterweight to Data for Progress’ numbers.
The recent survey, done by Mark Mellman, the longtime Democratic strategist who is also president of DFMI, finds that 71 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of voters in a set of 15 battleground states would like to see a platform that is “as least as pro-Israel” as the 2016 platform.
Mellman told The Daily Beast “there may be some loud voices” pushing for a more pro-Palestinian platform, but they don’t constitute “even a significant minority” of the party, per his polling. “A platform that enables people to label the party as anti-Israel is extremely politically damaging to Democratic candidates around the country… it’s the difference between lots of Democrats winning and lots of Democrats losing,” he said. “The reality is, the platform drafting committee accepted this unanimously because I think they recognize these realities.”
Mellman, whose group spent millions attacking Sanders during the primary, argued that elements of the party aimed to “sow hatred of Israel” by supporting occupation language in the platform. Past platforms, he said, have done the right thing by including a two-state solution, “which gives Palestinians dignity and independence in a state of their own, which allows a Jewish state of Israel to live in security and peace. That to me is a goal, an aspiration, a platform. I don’t say that’s one-sided.”
The platform fight comes as Biden has taken new steps to reach out to as many voting constituencies as possible. Throughout much of the primary, Biden pitched, convincingly, that he could create the “broad coalition” needed to beat Trump, and is working towards that goal just months ahead of the general election. During a Monday afternoon Zoom conference call, Biden joined Muslim advocates and leaders who have endorsed his bid.
“We have a swing state strategy and we will deliver for you,” Khurrum Wahid, the national chair of Emgage, a Muslim political group hoping to turn out 1 million Muslim voters, said on the virtual call in introducing Biden. Wahid pointed to battlegrounds Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida, as well Texas and Arizona, as possible Democratic pickup opportunities with Muslim voters’ help.
Biden sought to turn the attention back on Trump’s attacks on the community: “Muslim Americans were the first to feel Donald Trump’s assault,” he said on Monday, adding he would overturn his administration’s so-called “Muslim ban” on the first day of his presidency. Later he said: “I’ll continue to champion the rights of Palestians and Israels to have a state of their own, as I have for decades. Each of them, a state of their own.”
Outside observers say the Biden campaign is walking a well-worn political tightrope on Israel issues. “Part of the old-think is, you have to run the numbers and make assessments about what’s more important: the larger group of older Jewish voters in Florida who might vote for Trump, or is it a smaller group of Arab-Americans in Michigan who might stay home because they’re frustrated with Biden? What does the campaign care more about?” said the former Obama administration official. The omission of more pro-Palestinian language, the official said, “was definitely a part of the political calculus.”