Last week reports of the Democratic Party’s draft platform plank on Israel/Palestine indicated that Joe Biden’s forces have maintained a strong, pro-Israel line. James Zogby, a Sandersite member of the Democratic National Committee (and former participant in platform discussions) says the Biden team is spinning compromises. I spoke by phone to the president of the Arab American Institute.
Zogby: We were asked not to release [the draft] and we did not. But some pro-Israel groups have released it boasting that it’s a very strong rejection of Bernie and a very strong pro-Israel Biden platform. They need to declare victory somewhat like Trump and the NRA. They can’t admit to weakness or defeat. But frankly, this platform– in many places from what I’ve seen that they’ve released– does move in a direction that’s better than where we have been before.
I would say at the same time, it’s still 20 years behind the times.
One place in particular is on BDS. We had pushed in 2016 for a First Amendment exception to the BDS plank and they wouldn’t entertain it. It was to be as it is. They have now put in a First Amendment exception. So they oppose so-called efforts to delegitimize Israel at the U.N. or through the BDS movement but they defend the right of every American’s free speech. That’s similar to a Republican candidate who wants to sound tough on reproductive rights saying, I’m opposed to abortion, but it’s everyone’s free choice as to how they approach this issue…. .
According to this platform, every state that has passed an anti-BDS legislation is violating my constitutional rights and it is therefore null and void. Bottom line is, I don’t give a damn what their position is, just don’t make my position to advance Palestinian human rights illegal, and they’ve now done this. That’s a piece of progress I can pocket, and they can claim it’s a win, it’s not a win… It’s a setback they can’t admit.
You’re talking about a long game?
As I often tell people, this is not about the glass being half full or half empty. For years we didn’t even have a glass! For decades, the other side wrote the platform, we were told this is not going to happen, and it was over. We’re beginning to see give, and see a debate that’s actually taking place in public. We saw it in 2016, and we got nothing. We’re seeing it in 2020 and we will get something.
There are weaknesses in the platform, and we’re not done with it yet.
Reports are they don’t want the word occupation in the platform.
From everything we’ve seen, they’re still not willing to include the word occupation, which is to my way of thinking, bizarre. Even George W. Bush opposed occupation. Barack Obama opposed occupation. Hillary Clinton opposed occupation, Joe Biden has said that the occupation is wrong, and yet they can’t put it in the platform, which is indicative of the fact that there is some obstinance on the part of the folks who are talking to the drafters—that this is unacceptable language. It’s not only acceptable, it’s correct. And it’s at least 20 years behind the times, maybe 30 or 40 years behind the time.
Each time, we are told these issues are so complicated, so divisive, and you will hurt the party if you raise them. They’ve decided to draw the line on the word occupation. Imagine that as the entire world is pushing back on possible formal annexation, the party is attempting to deny the occupation. That’s wrong, it’s ahistorical and it is completely out of touch with Democratic voters.
I’ve seen the language about settlements. They say they oppose Settlement expansion. We’ve been opposing settlements for 50 years. The issue is not settlement expansion, it’s settlements period. That word’s got to go– expansion.
I was pleased that there is a framing of “Israelis and Palestinians both deserve…” indicating a level of equality between the two groups. That I appreciate, and that is something that I want to acknowledge as positive.
The bottom line is that there is work to be done to catch up with reality and to catch up to where Democrats are. The polls are very clear on where Democrats and independents and overall the American public is. They oppose occupation, they want U.S. policy to be balanced between Israeli and Palestinian rights. And they want accountability. There is a strong support for conditioning American aid to Israeli behavior, to say that we oppose annexation. The tide has turned so much on that issue that AIPAC had to “give permission” to members of Congress, which is itself so embarrassing both to AIPAC but also to policy makers that they needed permission. Nevertheless, there are now those calling for conditioning American aid in support of Israeli abuses, and the platform ought to recognize that as well.
This is symbolic, right?
If I had a nickel for every time a platform plank was enforced, and actually implemented, I’d be a pretty poor guy. The debate over platform language is a test of wills of whether the party is going to sign up to one side or another.
But we need more. The party platform needs to catch up to reality. This is a platform that is at least 20 years behind the time. Will they win votes or lose votes based on the platform? If this language stays as it is, they stand a better chance of losing votes than they would if they changed it to a more up to date position calling for the conditioning of aid, an end to occupation and settlements—positions where a majority of the Democratic party, where most of the American Jewish community is, and where Arab Americans are.
Frankly if they want to dampen support among Arabs while doing nothing to increase support from Jews– there aren’t five Jewish votes that are going to vote for a platform just because it doesn’t call for an end to occupation and settlements. There just aren’t. They need to catch up to reality there too. They have groups like AIPAC or this new Democratic Majority for Israel telling them they’ll lose Florida if you say this. That’s absolute nonsense and someone’s got to tell them that. This platform as it currently is isn’t going to add 5 votes in Florida. But it sure can cost them votes, and enthusiasm.
What’s the overall progress on this issue inside the Democratic Party?
When I look at where we started and where we are, progress has been made. Is it where we want to be? No. Do activists who haven’t been part of this process have a right to criticize it? Absolutely, because that creates the pressure that pushes us forward. At the same time, it’s important to know where we were. This issue didn’t start yesterday or last month. It didn’t start with Bernie in 2016. We had this debate on the platform in 84, and a massive debate from the convention podium in 1988 when I was told our plan couldn’t be accepted because if the “P word” would be used it would blow the party apart.
We’ve gone beyond having the word Palestine in the platform. But again—it’s 20 years behind. It’s time to catch up to the reality on the ground and the reality of voter opinion.
I thought the center of gravity in the Democratic Party shifted from AIPAC to J Street. Who is in the driver’s seat?
Look at Mark Mellman’s statement, of DMfI [saying Biden’s forces are holding the line]. He’s got it completely wrong. Yes, the fear factor and the myth of invincibility of AIPAC still holds with several members of Congress. But they may have some sway on the hill but we have got all the positions around the hill. They have nowhere to go. And the defeat of Eliot Engel was the first volley. It says to them, wake up, there is a new Democratic Party in formation and yes on the side of the Jewish community, J street is the center of where that debate is, and it’s the center of where the debate is in the country as a whole.
AIPAC is making itself more marginal by its behavior. Which is fine with me. When they talk about, “Oh we’re going to restore bipartisan support for Israel,” they’re panicked. They’ve got bipartisan support in Congress, but they don’t have bipartisan support in the country as whole. And it’s a demographic issue. You have white middle aged evangelical fundamentalist Christians on one side. And you have young people, African American, Latino and Asian, on the other side, and those are two distinct constituencies who have radically different views on this issue. It’s like Israel/Palestine has become what the gay marriage issue was 20 years ago, and each side is a mirror of the other. 65-35 on one side, 35-65 on the other. That’s how it plays out.
So one can claim, I twisted the arm of this member of Congress and we got bipartisan support. And the answer is, no you don’t. You got the support of those elected, who are elected right now, but the ground has shifted under them, and they know it. And as the late Congressman John Conyers said to me once– when I asked, Don’t they have more principles and think of the national interest? — their only principle and interest once they get elected is to get reelected. So the defeat of Eliot Engel is going to send a message that maybe some ought to rethink their approach. Perhaps I should align myself with the majority of Democrats and just come out and say annexation is wrong and if you do it there is going to be consequences in U.S. funding. Which is why you have legislation now moving in that direction.
These are all gestures and signs of a shifting debate, but AIPAC is being like the NRA, and can’t allow that shift. But they just did. They had to give permission to Congresspeople because they couldn’t hold back the flood waters.
Do I want to get overly confident about the erosion of power? No. The extreme pro-Israel camp still has a significant arsenal; and there are going to continue to be knockdown, drag out fights around the country. That is not something to be avoided or to fear, it is what progress looks like.