The Democratic Party Platform Committee released and voted on the convention platform this week, and unsurprisingly, the plank devoted to Israel and the Palestinians was heavily scrutinized. In the runup to the platform being released, there was wildly divergent speculation about the Israel plank. It would call out Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, or it would give Israel a completely free pass on its actions with regard to the Palestinians. It would call for security assistance to Israel to be conditioned, or it would indicate that the current historically high levels of security assistance are insufficient. It would be an expression of a Democratic Party that is steadily being taken over by anti-Israel voices, or it would be an expression of a Democratic Party that will back anything and everything that Israel does without reservations.
Lo and behold, the Democratic plank on Israel turns out to be what anyone who pays close attention would expect from a party with Joe Biden as the nominee; a centrist position encompassing support for Israel as an American ally, an unwavering commitment to Israeli security, unreserved backing of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and discomfort with policies that make such a solution more difficult to achieve, and a recognition that the U.S. should support both Israelis and Palestinians without making them suffer for decisions by their leaders that the U.S. opposes. It is, effectively, a distillation of what used to be a strong bipartisan consensus on Israel that in the Trump era is now to be found almost exclusively on one side of the aisle.
This is not to say that the plank does not include some important strides forward from previous Democratic planks on Israel. Some of these are steps that should have been taken irrespective of anything happening on the ground, some of them are a response to President Trump’s policies in this arena, and some of them are squarely aimed at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s drive toward annexation. The most obvious one is the stated opposition to “any unilateral steps by either side—including annexation—that undermine prospects for two states.” Given the wall to wall opposition to West Bank annexation from Democrats, including Biden, the specific mention of annexation is in no way surprising, but it is important nonetheless as a reinforcement that Democrats do not view this issue in the same manner as the Trump administration. The plank also states opposition to Israeli settlement expansion, which was not in previous platforms, and an element that acknowledges the difficulties that expanding settlements pose to a two-state outcome, particularly given the Israeli government’s new position – backed by the Trump administration – that no settlements or settlers will be withdrawn from the West Bank in any agreement.
Perhaps less obvious but no less important is the tacit acknowledgement that the U.S. must have an independent relationship with the Palestinian people. Rather than mention the need to prop up the Palestinian Authority or ensure continued support to the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, the plank speaks of supporting the Palestinian people and of the right of Palestinians to freedom and security in their own viable state – which is a noted contrast with Trump administration rhetoric on the need for Palestinians to demonstrate that they deserve a state because they have no independent right to one. This may seem like irrelevant wordsmithing, but it is not. If Biden assumes the presidency in January, the item at the top of the agenda in the Israeli-Palestinian file should be reestablishing an American relationship with the Palestinians, and that will have to start with convincing ordinary Palestinians that the U.S. is not their foe.
There is no question that this all represents a progressive shift on Israel. The question is whether it is a large enough shift, and whether it is ultimately meaningless pablum designed to make Democrats look like they are not conducting business as usual while giving cover for a Biden presidency to do precisely that. The two elements missing from the plank that progressives most wanted to see and that give rise to such sentiments are the word “occupation,” which for many was the ultimate litmus test in determining whether or not Democrats are serious about addressing right-wing Israeli government policies that have led to a one-state reality, and a call to tie U.S. assistance to Israel to annexation or settlement activity. That neither of these were incorporated into the platform is disappointing to progressives, who believe that it had to go much further in order to demonstrate seriousness in cleaning up the mess left by Trump administration policies or in acknowledging just how bad the situation is for Palestinians on the ground and for the prospects of any outcome that will provide Palestinians with democracy and equality.
It is tough to dismiss these concerns. It ultimately comes down to the purpose of the platform and whether you believe in incremental progress or radical structural change. I tend to favor incremental progress as a way of bringing people along and not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good – not to mention that I am opposed to conditioning security assistance to Israel on policy grounds – but I understand entirely why those who favor a different approach see this as disappointing. The platform, however, is not about establishing an actual policy agenda for governing. It is about keeping a large and varied Democratic coalition together and winning the election in November. And on that count, the message emanating from the Israel plank is that Democrats remain overwhelmingly pro-Israel, and that Jewish voters who oppose Trump on every other issue but feel that he has Israel’s back have nothing to worry about with Joe Biden. An amendment to the plank calling for adding criticism of the Israeli occupation, criticism of settlement activity rather than settlement expansion, and conditioning aid to Israel on West Bank annexation was defeated 117-34. For all of the nonsensical talk about the leading figureheads of the Democratic Party being Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib as they allegedly radicalize Democratic lawmakers and activists towards BDS and anti-Zionist positions, Democrats remain comfortably in the position reflected by their nominee of traditional support for Israel and traditional desires to see a two-state outcome.
It is worth mentioning that amidst the angst stirred up by Peter Beinart’s call for a bi-national state and the gnashing of teeth over what this will mean for support for Zionism and a Jewish Israel, one party platform explicitly calls for a secure, Jewish, and democratic state, while one party platform envisions a single state between the river and the sea. The Republican platform from 2016 is being adopted wholesale as the Republican platform for 2020, and as it stripped all language about two states or support for a future Palestine, it remains a policy document that effectively calls for a single state. Both for those who are concerned about the Democrats demonstrating progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and for those who are concerned about maintaining Israel’s status as Jewish and democratic and fighting its potential isolation or delegitimization, there should not even be a debate about which party platform expresses a desire to address these issues and which one does not even make a pretense about doing so.