Allies of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred at the Democratic platform drafting committee’s first round of hearings on 9 June over the issue of Palestinian freedom and Israel.
The clashes point to deeper struggles over Israel taking place within the party.
Sanders’ backers called for elevating Palestinian rights and acknowledging Israel’s military occupation in the party’s general election platform.
The video below shows highlights of the exchanges.
Those requests from Sanders allies were roundly rejected by Clinton supporters, who recycled platitudes about Israel’s security, apparently disputed the existence of Israeli military occupation and attacked the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
The other ten, appointed by Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, mostly include lobbyists and establishment insiders.
Sanders has said he is using his leverage ahead of next month’s Democratic convention to push for the most progressive platform in the party’s history.
By making Palestinian rights a central component of his fight for a more inclusive and open Democratic Party, Sanders is forcing a long overdue public conversation about the most contentious issue in American politics.
BDS “must stop immediately”
Robert Wexler, a former congressman from Florida and staunch Clinton advocate, opened the discussion on Middle East policy by outlining the party establishment’s blueprint for the region.
Wexler, now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, a nonprofit pro-Israel advocacy group, was present to give testimony as an expert.
Democrats “have a long-standing record of friendship with Israel” and “Clinton will continue that commitment,” Wexler said.
“While some proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement may hope that pressuring Israel will lead to peace, the truth is outside forces will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he added.
“Particularly when anti-Semitism is rising throughout the world, Democrats must condemn efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel … The delegitimization of Israel must stop immediately,” Wexler said.
That Wexler felt compelled to attack BDS is a testament to the success of Palestine solidarity activism which up until a few years ago had been dismissed as a fringe movement.
Civil rights activist and celebrated public intellectual Cornel West, an outspoken supporter of BDS appointed to the committee by Sanders, responded to Wexler with a plea for equality and justice.
Israel’s security “can never be predicated on an occupation of precious Palestinians” who have been “wrestling with occupation for 50-some years, demeaned, devalued, dominated, exploited,” West said.
“For too long the Democratic Party’s been beholden to AIPAC, that didn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinian brothers and sisters,” West said, referring to the powerful Israel lobby group.
West strongly denounced anti-Semitism, but warned that the ongoing struggle against that form of bigotry “cannot be the excuse of in any way downplaying the unbelievable misery that we see in Gaza and West Bank and other places.”
“So my first question would be, would you argue for the use of the word occupation in the platform?” West asked Wexler.
He also asked how Wexler would respond to the assertion that “for so long the United States has been so biased toward Israeli security and not accented the humanity of Palestinians that to talk about even-handedness is always a version of anti-Semitism as opposed to a struggle for justice.”
Wexler was unequivocal: “No, I would not support and would in fact oppose the use of the word occupation for the very reason that it undermines our common objective,” the former congressman claimed.
The Democratic Party’s primary objective, he explained, is the “creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state” alongside “a Jewish-majority democratic state of Israel.”
When Arab American Institute president Jim Zogby, another Sanders appointee who has defended BDS, challenged Wexler on Israel’s settlements built illegally in the occupied West Bank, Wexler accused him of “undermin[ing] the whole equation that supports a negotiated two-state outcome.”
“How much is this going to cost?”
Deborah Parker, a Native American activist appointed by Sanders, expressed opposition to more wars in the Middle East and the cost of US military spending in the region, especially “as we sit here and listen to the amount of homelessness and infrastructure, education needs” in the US.
“How much is this going to cost us?” she asked.
Instead of addressing Parker’s question, Wexler paraphrased Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“One point Netanyahu always makes is that Israel is our one ally that never, ever has asked, and I can’t imagine would ask, for an American to do their fighting for them. Israelis fight for themselves,” said Wexler.
But they fight “with our money!” a person in the audience shouted.
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The heckler was right. Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid, accounting for 55 percent of the total, to the tune of $3.1 billion a year.
President Barack Obama is currently negotiating a new deal that his administration vows will be the biggest military aid package to any country in history.
The tension between the Sanders and Clinton backers over Israel is part of a wider battle over the direction of the Democratic Party.
Clinton represents the establishment and corporate wing, which is determined to prevent the party’s increasingly young and progressive base from gaining any power.
This new generation of voters strongly supports Sanders’ message of economic justice, a trend that corresponds with a dramatic ideological shift to the left that will likely endure after his campaign.
And that shift includes Palestine.
In the last two years alone, support for Palestinians among liberal Democrats has nearly doubled.
Support for Palestinian rights is also growing, especially on US college campuses, where recent polls show that 43 percent of students favor boycott as a means to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights and 44 percent – almost half – view Israel as an apartheid state.
Deeply rattled, pro-Israel groups are desperately pouring resources into suppressing BDS.
So when Sanders appointed West to the platform committee and signaled his intention to push the Democrats on Palestine, the political establishment went into an all-out panic.
War on BDS
Concrete action came early this month when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring state agencies to divest from companies and institutions that back efforts to boycott Israel in support of freedom and equality.
The state will enforce the provision after drawing up what amounts to a political blacklist of accused boycott supporters.
Civil liberties groups slammed the decree as a McCarthyite violation of constitutionally protected speech.
While there is little doubt Cuomo would have supported the measure anyway, the likely motive behind the timing went largely unnoticed.
Cuomo, a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton, may have fast-tracked the decree to shore up the Democratic Party’s support for Israel and to counter Sanders’ influence on the party platform.
During his speech announcing the executive order, Cuomo alluded to Sanders’ criticisms of Israel’s attacks on Gaza, warning,“You now have aspects of the Democratic Party that are being critical of Israel.” Cuomo then insisted, “I still think the Democratic party and the leadership of the Democratic party and the candidates of the Democratic Party are far and away stronger supporters of Israel than any other party.”
Clinton was gearing up for a war on the Palestine solidarity movement as early as last July when she vowed “to make countering BDS a priority” of her presidency.
A lot has happened since then.
Sanders rose from relative obscurity to rock star status and he has used his prominence to snub AIPAC, slam Israel’s military assault on Gaza as “disproportionate” and challenge Clinton to treat Palestinians with respect and dignity on a national debate stage.
And he did it all while remaining competitive, demonstrating that speaking up for Palestinians doesn’t have to be a career killer.
Cuomo’s anxieties over the rise in support for Palestinian rights in the party were best distilled by Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, also a Clinton surrogate.
Speaking to Politico after Cuomo’s announcement, Nadler complained that “a small minority … led by Bernie perhaps, or led by Cornel West, could generate a debate that makes the Democratic Party look, during the debate, not good, or anti-Israel.”
“It could cost us a lot of votes against Trump,” Nadler added.
New York Senator Charles Schumer, another Clinton supporter, said he planned to introduce national legislation similar to Cuomo’s state-level decree.
“One state is one thing,” Schumer said, “but to do it in the whole country would be much better.”
These are the declarations of an establishment that is losing the argument and sees its best option as using state power to quash political speech.
But so far, this strategy has not worked, and civil liberties defenders have said that such measures are bound to invite legal challenges on First Amendment grounds.
Symbolic as it may be, Sanders’ appointment of West to the platform committee signals a major crack in the Democratic Party’s allegiance to Israel.
The groundswell of support for Palestinian equality is inching its way up from the grassroots.
“We’re at a turning point now and of course it’s going to be a slow one in the Democratic Party, but some of us are working outside the Democratic Party to make it quicker,” Cornel West told fellow members of the platform committee. “That’s why I support the BDS.”