The Democratic Platform Committee: What’s in a Name?

When it comes to illegal Israeli occupation, actually quite a lot.

On June 24th, after more than nine hours of heated debate in St. Louis on issues from environmental justice to penal reform, the Democratic Party’s platform committee broached one of the party’s most contentious subjects: Israel-Palestine. In this election, perhaps more so than any other, the conflict has managed to starkly divide Democrats; nowhere has this been clearer than in the meetings of the party platform committee.

The 15-person platform committee is responsible for hashing out the Party’s official stances, as well as giving members a chance to air their ideological differences before the Democratic National Convention (DNC). The committee this year consisted of six delegates chosen by then-presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, five chosen by Vermont Senator and former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, and four chosen by (now former) DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

Cornel West & Bernie Sanders
Dr. Cornel West with former Democratic candidate for president, Bernie Sanders at a 2016 campaign rally.

Sanders brought in a number of outsiders to the committee, including philosopher and political activist Cornel West, Native American rights advocate Deborah Parker, and climate justice proponent Bill McKibben. While Clinton and Wasserman-Schultz generally favored establishment insiders and corporate lobbyists, there were a few surprisingly progressive choices: Clinton selected Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill) and union advocate Paul Booth, while Wasserman-Schultz picked Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif). The relative diversification of Clinton and Wasserman-Schultz’s selections for the committee help explain Sanders’s insistence to stay in the race. Even though he failed to become the party’s nominee, Sanders’s influence can be felt both through his own picks for the platform committee, as well as the more progressive voices selected by the Democratic establishment. Ironically, it was long-time DNC member James Zogby, Arab-American Institute president and Sanders delegate, who drew the ire of both the Clinton and DNC members on the committee.

Tensions flared when Zogby introduced an amendment to the Party’s stance on Israel-Palestine calling for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements so that [Palestinians] may live in independence, sovereignty, and dignity.” The motion came weeks after the committee’s June 9th hearings in Washington D.C., where former Florida congressman Robert Wexler clashed with Zogby and West. While the topics of anti-Semitism and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement arose, it was calling the occupation by its name that stuck with the Sanders delegates. After the confrontation with Wexler, who now advocates for Israel in his role as president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, Zogby reified his stance and proposed the amendment to the platform committee. The issue predictably split DNC members along lines reflecting their favored candidate’s positions. While Clinton and the DNC’s combined 10 appointees fervently opposed the amendment, Sanders’s five defended it. Ultimately, the committee voted down the measure 5–8, with only Sanders’s delegates supporting the amendment and two delegates abstaining. The committee did, however, choose to keep Zogby’s wording on Palestinian “independence, sovereignty, and dignity,” marking a departure from previous platforms that focused on Israel’s security within the framework of a two-state solution.

Dr. James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), at the 2016 DNC Platform Draft Meeting.
Dr. James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), at the 2016 DNC Platform Draft Meeting, July 8.

Since St. Louis, the Palestine question has continued to split the party. At the July 8th platform drafting meeting in Orlando, Democrats shot down a virtually identical amendment by a margin of 73–95 (again, with mainly Clinton supporters in opposition—for the same reasons, namely identifying the occupation as a primary obstacle to regional peace.

Of course, simply mentioning Israel’s illegal occupation and settlements in the platform is hardly a panacea. But the party’s refusal to even acknowledge the existence of occupation makes it is impossible to take seriously its commitment to any lasting solution.

At face value, the Democratic Platform seems unimportant for practical governance as it establishes a normative agenda rather than a concrete, policy-based one. Rather than formulating binding legislative decisions, the purpose of the platform is to lay out the “ideas and beliefs that govern [the] party,” as outlined in the foreword to the 2012 Platform.

In light of this, it is easy to dismiss the Democratic Platform as empty rhetoric. However, as Sanders delegate Bill McKibben writes, this is a “new kind of election” due to Sanders’ focus on “issues, issues, issues” in lieu of typical political “posturing and spin.” Rhetorical arenas such as the platform committee, which have been overlooked historically, have become staging grounds for the future policies of the Party. As a result, this year’s platform committee hotly debated issues ranging from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement to a $15/hour minimum wage.

Still, this is hardly the first time that Israel-Palestine stoked controversy in process of drafting the Democratic Platform. During the 2012 convention, DNC chairman Antonio Villaraigosa reintroduced a reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a measure that had been removed from the platform the day before. He called for a voice vote:  Despite the fact that the Ayes and Nos sounded “evenly divided,” and that a two-thirds majority was required to push through the measure, Villaraigosa called the vote for the Ayes. His decision caused uproar.

Since 2012, the importance of the Democratic Party’s discussions around Palestine has only increased, especially as youth in the United States become more disillusioned with Israel. American pollster Frank Luntz, at a closed conference in Jerusalem earlier this year, reported that Jewish American students have an increasingly negative image of Israel: only 42% believe Israel wants peace, and just 31% believe Israel is a democracy. The daily brutality of occupation in the West Bank, alongside highly publicized Israeli war crimes in Gaza, are likely responsible for this shift in opinion. If the Democratic Party wants to tap into the frustrations and hopes of young voters, it must be willing to recognize Israel’s repression of the Palestinian people.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the 2016 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, March 21, 2016, at the Verizon Center in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the 2016 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, March 21, 2016, at the Verizon Center in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Meanwhile, establishment Democrats seem politically unwilling to discuss the occupation. Clinton’s hawkish speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last March succinctly reflects the Democratic Party’s historic stances on the Israeli occupation and its fervent support for the state that rivals that of the most aggressive neoconservatives. According to Zogby, the refusal to name the occupation stems from “a mistaken notion that this issue will resonate almost exclusively with Jewish voters, [but] they’re not going to lose Jewish voters over criticizing Israeli occupation.” For what it’s worth, Sanders’s vision not only names the occupation, but frames it as the first step to any solution. At the drafting committee’s earlier public hearing in Washington, Cornel West emphasized that Israeli security can “never be predicated on an occupation of precious Palestinians,” while Zogby stated that “it has been recognized by every American administration that there is an occupation.” Refusing to acknowledge such realities can only further alienate the base of the Democratic Party at a time when opinions on Israel-Palestine are rapidly shifting to the left.

This is precisely why Democrats cannot sincerely push for a just solution to the Palestine question without publicly recognizing the barriers to peace. They must codify into the platform, which constitutes the party’s basic beliefs, both the Israeli occupation and the illegality of the settlements. Even though concessions were made, the proceedings of the platform committee signal a watershed moment for the Democratic Party and it must be willing to change or else face the prospect of marginalization.

This article is by Institute for Palestine Studies summer intern Laith Shakir.