Is the Democratic Platform Anti-Israel? Not as Republicans Would Have You Believe

Democratic US presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event devoted to the reopening of the US economy during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 11, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Bastiaan Slabbers.

Republicans desperate to tar the Democrats as anti-Israel are now promoting the idea that the party platform is hostile to Israel.

While I could write a better one to strengthen the US-Israel relationship, it is by no means a reflection of a drift of the party away from Israel. The language is consistent with past US policy and the views of most Jewish Democrats. Though presidents are not bound by the platforms and typically ignore them, partisans see them as representative of the party’s values.

J Street, Sanders supporters, and other critics of the Israeli government had high hopes for weakening language supporting Israel, incorporating harsher criticism of the government, and pledging stronger backing for the Palestinians; however, the presumptive nominee’s supporters always control the deliberation and the committee voted overwhelmingly against the inclusion of language they knew would anger the majority of Jewish voters.

Consequently, the platform reiterates the party’s traditional support for Israel and the two-state solution, vows to continue providing military aid without conditions, recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, says the city should remain undivided, and pledges to renew aid to the Palestinians.

None of those positions are new or critical of Israel. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to the Trump peace plan, he accepted the possibility of the establishment of a Palestinian state (if certain conditions are met). By explicitly ruling out conditioning military aid, the platform rejects the progressives’ desire to coerce Israel to do their bidding. The platform does not say, and Biden has explicitly ruled out, reversing Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem and movement of the embassy. While critics seized on the platform’s reference to the future of Jerusalem being a matter for negotiation, that is Trump’s position as well.

The renewal of aid to the Palestinians is a mistake — but Israel has generally favored assisting them because improving their economy is one way to cultivate peace. Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon falsely claimed the platform calls for “an unconditional commitment” to restore aid being withheld until the PA ends its “pay-for-slay” policy. The platform, however, says the assistance will be given “consistent with US law,” which would mean adherence to the Taylor Force Act barring aid until certain conditions are met.

The Democratic platform is critical of settlements and opposes Israeli annexation of the West Bank, positions that are not new or different from the opinions of many Israelis. To the chagrin of J Street and other detractors, the platform committee rejected the inclusion of language calling for the end of the “occupation.” Sanders supporters did succeed in one goal they failed to achieve in 2016, namely, including language opposing settlement expansion. Abramson and Ballabon hyperbolically called the Democrats’ policy “the ethnic cleansing of Jews from their historic homeland.”

The far-left was also disappointed by the position on the BDS movement: “We oppose any effort to unfairly single out and delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations, or through the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, while protecting the Constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.”

In response to criticism from the left that the platform did not go far enough in criticizing Israel and supporting the Palestinians, former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said, “The platform makes clear our opposition to unilateral steps by either side to undermine prospects for peace” and that “for the first time” the platform expresses “opposition to Israeli settlement expansion” and “Israel’s annexation of territory of the West Bank.” Shapiro added that it also makes clear “we will continue to stand against incitement and terror, and for the first time, we recognize the right of Palestinians to live in a state of their own.”

Perhaps he means the explicit mention of these positions is new to the platform, but they are not new to the party, as they are consistent with the views of Carter, Clinton, and Obama.

Democratic strategist Joel Rubin, who served as director for Jewish outreach for Sanders’ campaign, said, “This is the most progressive Democratic platform on the Israeli-Palestine issue.” For Jews on the right, if Sanders supporters see it that way, it must be bad.

One plank that opponents singled out was the reiteration of the belief that the Iran nuclear agreement is “the best means to verifiably cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb” and the expression of urgency to return “to mutual compliance.”

The Iran deal was a catastrophic mistake that proved unverifiable and did not block Iran’s pursuit of a bomb, and rejoining it would compound the error. It is unwise, but not anti-Israel. The truth is Trump’s policies, which are necessary but not sufficient, have not stopped Iran either.

Critics have a legitimate point that the party is trying to have it both ways on BDS. As Sanders’ representative on the committee, longtime anti-Israel propagandist James Zogby explained, “It’s a statement of personal preference on [the] part of whoever wrote the draft, but affirmation of the fact that everyone has the right to do it. The second clause nullifies the first clause, so it’s a win.”

This “victory” is not a reflection of any support for a boycott of Israel; it is simply a recognition of the misguided belief of many Democrats that anti-BDS legislation would violate the First Amendment. Moreover, Zogby complained that the Democrats “consistently [get] the section on the Mideast wrong” and whined that “despite some marginal progress in this year’s platform … it’s still 20 years behind the times and out of touch with the views and wishes of voters.”

If Zogby is unhappy, it should offer some comfort to the pro-Israel community.

Reflecting the Jewish Republican view, Jeff Dunetz noted that the 2020 platform omitted pro-Israel language it had in 2012. It does not mention the need to “continue to isolate Hamas until it renounces terrorism,” or that the Palestinian refugee issue should be settled by allowing them to settle in a Palestinian state, not in Israel, and that “it is unrealistic to expect the outcome of final status negotiations to be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

The sin of omission does not make the platform hostile to Israel. Nothing in it suggests Biden’s position on those issues would be problematic. It does say, for example, “Democrats will continue to stand against incitement and terror.”

Certainly, more pro-Israel language could be added; the platform contains all of three paragraphs related to Israel; but, ultimately, it’s more for show and does not tie the president’s hands. A better guide to the future of US-Israel relations is to review Biden’s statements, which will comfort most people in the pro-Israel community but alarm others.

Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations.

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