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Democrats seek unity on Israel, but cracks show at convention

The Democratic Party spent much of its convention projecting unity on issues from fighting racism to fair trade. But fissures showed on one issue that Democrats are usually united on: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Their party, which has long commanded the vast majority of Jewish votes, like the Republican side has defined itself as pro-Israel — ensuring military aid to Israel and defending it on the world stage. But some Democratic delegates to the convention said that should change.

Photo: Hillary Clinton at a June 6 campaign stop in Lynwood, California/creative commons

Delegates for Bernie Sanders, many of them young, would like to see America’s sympathies shift from robust support of Israel to outspoken opposition to the oppression of Palestinians. They see opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank as of a piece with other human rights issues they champion.

“Absolutely we need to take a stand on the occupation of Palestinians,” said Jennifer Merecki, a Sanders delegate from Montana. “The U.S. should stop funding Israel. They use that money for the oppression of Palestinian people.”

The change in U.S. policy that Sanders supporters are demanding tracks with a generational divide in the Democratic Party. While more older Democrats want the United States to favor Israel over the Palestinians, among Democrats 18 to 29, support is equally divided between Israel and the Palestinians, according to a late 2014 Washington Post poll.

In May, the Pew Research Center found that more liberal Democrats, and more Sanders supporters, sided with the Palestinians over Israel, some 40 percent to 33 percent. Seventy-one percent of millennials voted for Sanders, as opposed to 28 percent for Hillary Clinton, in the primaries. Republicans favor Israel over the Palestinians by wide margins.

Several convention delegates, for both Sanders and Clinton, suggested in interviews that the United States take measures it has already long taken. Some called for the U.S. to convene negotiations between the two sides, which Democratic and Republican administrations have attempted every few years. Others said the U.S. should oppose settlements, which it has since Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Hillary Clinton appears via video on convention’s second night. photos/dnc

But all who said they want U.S. policy to shift emphasized that they want the government to take a more vocal stand in defense of Palestinian rights.

“We feel Palestinians deserve their own nation and that they deserve human rights,” said Elacido Salazar, 71, a Sanders delegate from Northern California whose wife, Bobbie, wore a pin that said “I support Palestinian human rights.”

“We should have discussions with the Israeli government to stop the settlements. [Palestinians] are defending their right to exist,” he said.

Clinton delegates interviewed, on the other hand, supported the views of their candidate, which are largely in lockstep with traditional Democratic support of Israel. They advocated a two-state solution but firmly defended Israel.

“I am a supporter of Israel,” said Maria Luna, vice chair of the New York State Democratic Party and a Clinton supporter. “We need to come to agreement between the two sides, otherwise the struggle will continue for dozens of years.”

Palestinians, she said, should gain American support “if they change their way of behaving toward Israel.”

Some Sanders delegates called for a significant change on U.S. policy toward Israel, with a few saying America should stop providing its annual $3 billion assistance package. Dwight Bullard, a Florida state senator who went on a May trip to the West Bank and Israel focused on Palestinian rights, said Israel should extend citizenship to Palestinians living in the territories.

Delegates show their approval

“You have people who lived in the region prior to the establishment of Israel,” said Bullard, 39, who wore a kaffiyeh, or Palestinian headscarf, around his neck. “As an African American, it’s hard for me to buy into the notion of segregation whether in the U.S. or abroad. Someone born in Jerusalem [should have] the rights of a citizen.”

Sanders advocated for increased recognition of Palestinian rights throughout his campaign. In a speech he gave concurrent with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee national conference in March, the Vermont senator supported Israel but called for friendship toward Palestinians.

“But to be successful, we have also got to be a friend not only to Israel but to the Palestinian people, where in Gaza unemployment today is 44 percent and we have there a poverty rate which is almost as high,” Sanders said. “So when we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored.”

When the Democratic Party platform was drafted in June, representatives of Sanders voters, including philosopher and civil rights activist Cornel West, pushed for the word “occupation” to be inserted into the section on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Democratic Party has long condemned Israel’s control of the West Bank, the wording change proved too controversial — it was not included.

According to Wendy Sherman, an adviser to Clinton, the Democratic nominee personally asked to make sure the platform remained pro-Israel.

“I had very direct instructions from Secretary Clinton that there would be clarity about this issue and there would be no space,” Sherman, a member of the platform drafting committee, said at a July 26 convention event hosted by the American Jewish Committee.

Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd

In the end, the platform echoed traditional bipartisan positions backing Israel: support for Israel’s security, a two-state solution to the conflict, the establishment of a Palestinian state and for Jerusalem to remain the capital of Israel. Sanders’ appointees were disappointed that the platform didn’t recognize Israel’s “occupation” nor refer to “settlement activity.”

“We got defeated,” West said July 25 in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. “But we’ll bounce back, though.”

The Republican Party also saw changes to its Israel policy in this year’s platform, tacking to the right. The party abandoned its longstanding bipartisan commitment to the two-state solution and opposed “any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms.”

For some pro-Israel activists, even reliable friends like Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s choice for running mate, represent a softening of Democratic support for Israel. Kaine has been a vocal supporter of U.S. security assistance to Israel, but like most Democrats bucked the pro-Israel lobby and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in supporting the Iran nuclear deal.

During the fight over the deal, Kaine absented himself from Netanyahu’s speech to Congress opposing the deal, but subsequently worked to smooth the waters between the prime minister and Senate Democrats.

Tellingly, Kaine has worked closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, despite their disagreements over the Iran deal, while at the same time earning the approval of J Street, the liberal Jewish group that seeks a more assertive U.S. policy in promoting the two-state solution. He rarely talks about the two-state solution without reminding the Palestinians of their obligations to honor past commitments and affirm Israel’s right to exist.

Sanders delegates, too, even as they called for significant changes in how the United States relates to Israel, said they opposed any infringement on Jews’ safety and rights in Israel. Israel, some said, should remain a Jewish homeland because of the atrocities committed against Jews in the Holocaust.

“As far as what happened to Jewish people in the Holocaust, they deserve a home,” said Alex Storer, 20, a delegate from Florida. “They have more in common with our society than other countries in the region.”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.