Democrats are at a turning point with regards to Israel as they head to their convention

Bernie Sanders, (L) the insurgent liberal populist who's been much more critical of Israel and its approach to Palestine than Hillary Clinton (R) and most of the party brass could influence the future US policy towards Israel during the Democratic convention
Bernie Sanders, (L) the insurgent liberal populist who’s been much more critical of Israel and its approach to Palestine than Hillary Clinton (R) and most of the party brass could influence the future US policy towards Israel during the Democratic convention

Democrats are heading into their convention next month with deep divisions over U.S. policy toward Israel.

The issue created deep rifts at the Democrats’ convention four years ago, and that discord is likely to grow more pronounced due to the influence of Bernie Sanders, the insurgent liberal populist who’s been much more critical of Israel and its approach to Palestine than Hillary Clinton and most of the party brass.

Clinton has secured enough delegates to win the party’s presidential nomination, but Sanders is vowing to take his campaign all the way to the Philadelphia convention in order to maximize his leverage and yank the still-evolving platform to the left.

Sanders supporters have wasted no time advocating their position during the platform drafting process, where they’re calling to exclude references to Jerusalem while advancing the notion that Israeli settlements in the West Bank represent “an occupation” –– language adamantly opposed by many Clinton backers, who say it would undermine the peace process.

“For too long the Democratic Party’s been beholden to AIPAC [and] didn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinian brothers and sisters,” Cornel West, an educator and activist appointed by Sanders to the drafting committee, said last week, referring to the pro-Israel lobbying group.

“We’re at a turning point now.”

The Israel debate highlights a key challenge facing Democratic leaders as they seek to unite the party and move from an often contentious primary to November’s general election.

Clinton has been a staunch defender of Israel throughout her career. But many liberals have criticized her position as overly hawkish, leaving party leaders with the delicate task of adopting an Israel plank that represents her views –– and doesn’t anger Jewish voters –– without alienating the Sanders supporters who tend to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and distrust the former secretary of State on issues of foreign policy.

While both Clinton and Sanders are strong advocates of a two-state solution, their divergent positions when it comes to Israel’s actions and strategy have been on stark display throughout the primary.

Clinton has defended Israel’s use of force against Hamas and dismissed criticisms about “disproportionate force” harming civilians as an unfortunate part of that defense. She has accused Palestinian leaders of allowing Hamas to turn Gaza into “a terrorist haven.” And, speaking at an annual AIPAC convention in March, she said “America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security or survival.”

“Some things aren’t negotiable,” she said, “and anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business being our president.”

Sanders, by contrast, has called for a more “even-handed approach” that lends more consideration to Palestinian casualties. He’s criticized Israel’s military actions in Gaza as “disproportionate” at the expense of civilians. And he skipped the AIPAC convention, instead laying out his Middle East agenda in Salt Lake City, where he decried Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank as an impediment to peace.

“Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank, just as Israel did in Gaza — once considered an unthinkable move on Israel’s part,” he said in March.

It’s hardly the first time Democrats have grappled with each other over Israel during election season. At the Charlotte, N.C., convention in 2012, party leaders stirred a hornet’s nest when they rewrote the platform, mid-event, to declare Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. The contentious voice vote drew a chorus of boos from critics who both opposed the policy and questioned the veracity of the unverifiable tally.

This year, similar lines are being drawn between the Clinton and Sanders camps. Last week, during the first meeting of the 15-member Platform Drafting Committee, Sanders’s surrogates promoted the Vermont senator’s calls to include the “occupation” language as part of the official campaign message. West led the way and was joined by James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and another Sanders appointee.

“If we’re concerned about security, it seems to me we’re going to have to talk seriously about occupation,” West said. “I don’t know if you’ll allow the use of that word. … Occupation is real, it’s concrete.”

West was addressing a witness, Robert Wexler, who rejected the language outright.

“I would in fact oppose the use of the word ‘occupation’ for the very reason that it undermines our common objective,” said Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a Clinton supporter.

“A two-state outcome will result in an agreement on borders,” he added. “Once you have borders, the issue that propels your concern as what you refer to as occupation, will be resolved.”

Zogby spoke next, asking Wexler whether the “occupation” language should not be adopted “as a way simply of clarifying that to get to two states an occupation has to end?”

Wexler fired back that the focus on settlements ignored other vital elements of a much broader narrative.

“Settlements is one part of this very problematic story,” he said. “But so is Jerusalem. And so is refugees. And so is security. And so are borders.”

Zogby responded: “So should we leave Jerusalem out of the platform?”

“No,” Wexler said.

“I think that that would fit your notion, appropriately, that we should not negotiate or litigate any of the issues in the platform,” Zogby replied. “I would agree with that.”

Wexler pushed back even before the sentence was done.

“I would agree that we should not litigate the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of the Democratic platform,” he said.

“Except for the issues you want to litigate,” Zogby said. It was not a question.

“The point is the Democratic platform is a blueprint for bringing the two sides to a conclusion where our shared objectives are met,” Wexler responded.

How they get there from here remains to be seen.