Groups gear up for a DNC platform showdown over Israel

platform politics

Michael Stokes/Flickr

Bernie Sanders attends a rally at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia on July 15, 2019.

Ahead of Super Tuesday, Democrats are buzzing about the possibility of a brokered convention or a prolonged primary contest that could bring the presidential nomination process well into early summer. What does the still-crowded field mean for the party’s platform — and how will it reflect the party’s stance on Israel?

Why it matters: There are 187 members on the platform committee — 25 of whom have been appointed by Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. The remaining members will be appointed in accordance with how primary voters across the country cast their ballots and how many pledged delegates each candidate brings to the convention.

Impact of a Sanders surge: If Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is denied the nomination on the first ballot, he could still maintain leverage over the drafting process of the DNC platform. If Sanders picks up a plurality of delegates in the primaries, he would gain the power to appoint his supporters to a majority of the remaining slots on the committee, opening the door for more progressive proposals to be adopted by the full committee. 

How it works: The drafting committee will hold a series of public hearings across the country in the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention in July. About a month before the convention, committee members will meet to decide the provisions of the platform draft. The platform draft generally reflects the views of the likely presidential nominee. 

Behind Bernie’s first attempt: In 2016, Sanders pushed for revisions in the party’s Israel platform, with a focus on elevating Palestinian rights as a U.S. priority. People involved in discussions over potential changes to the platform said Sanders supporters demanded revisions in wording about U.S. relations with Israel and pushed for a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Greg Rosenbaum, a former chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council who served as a vice chair on the platform committee in 2016, told Jewish Insider that his drafting committee put together “a fairly solid plank on Israel and the rest of the Middle East,” pointing out that amendments proposed by Sanders-appointed committee members were ultimately voted down.

Team Sanders’ approach this year: Arab American Institute president James Zogby, who was appointed by Sanders to the 2016 platform committee, tells JI he’s convinced that if the Vermont senator is the party’s nominee, pro-Israel organizations will try to keep the platform from changing. “As in previous years,” Zogby said, “AIPAC will try to draw the line way far down to their side and they will use all the pressure that they possibly can to make sure that that line is not crossed.” Zogby predicts that the left flank of the party will seek to include language “that talks about balancing compassion for the Palestinians and support for their equal rights with rights for Israel’s security.” He added, “I don’t know what AIPAC will say is their red line. So there’ll be a fight, and it will be a fight that they make, not we make.” 

Rebuttal: An AIPAC spokesperson tells JI, “We work with both parties urging them to adopt platform language that strengthens the U.S.-Israel relationship.” 

Gearing up: Mark Mellman, CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel, tells JI his group is preparing to play “a major role” in what he expects will be a “big fight” to change the 2016 platform. If Sanders wins the first ballot or earns a significant amount of pledged delegates, Mellman said, “it’s going to be a battle to create a majority” — between the party appointees and the members picked by the candidates — to determine whether the DNC keeps the 2016 language or “creates a more anti-Israel platform.” 

J Street’s goal: Ben Shnider, vice president of political affairs at J Street, maintained that the goal is to “move the Israel plank in the platform to the center, a place that recognizes both the importance of a secured Jewish, democratic Israel and the rights and national aspirations of the Palestinians.” In addition, he said, the platform “should acknowledge the urgent need to end the occupation of Palestinian terrority and to prevent any sort of West Bank annexation. An Israel-Palestine plank of that nature should be able to carry support from a broad range of Democratic supporters of Israel.”  

Military aid not on the table: At the annual J Street conference in Washington, D.C. last October, several 2020 candidates expressed support for conditioning U.S. military aid as a means to discourage Israel from attempting to annex parts of the West Bank. Shnider told JI that the organization was not pushing for conditioned aid to be included in the party platform. He explained that the group’s position on aid to Israel is more nuanced, looking only to apply restrictions “that would ensure that the money is not spent on policies that undermine the best interests of the U.S. and Israel.” 

Hoping for the best: During a recent event in New York, Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, noted that the 2016 platform eclipsed the GOP’s Israel platform since it included “more in it which was supportive of Israel and in opposition to the BDS movement.” Soifer said the final Democratic platform in 2016 was indicative of strong support for Israel within the party. “If in fact 2020 ends up to be a contentious debate, there will be people there that will continue to ensure that it will end up very similar to how it did in 2016.” 

Call for consensus: Mellman said he hoped the party would not push for a change in language, telling JI the bitter fight would “divide our party and play into Donald Trump’s hands.” 

Flashback: At the 2012 convention, President Barack Obama directed the DNC to amend its platform on the floor after language declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was omitted in the platform committee. The change — “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel” — was approved in a raucous voice vote after three attempts.

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