Democrats anticipate messy debate over Israel in crafting 2024 platform

Party leaders are hoping that Biden’s incumbency will defuse clashes between the establishment and activist left over Middle East policy.

As the Republican presidential primary heats up, the Democratic Party appears set to avoid a major primary fight in 2024 — meaning that if President Joe Biden is renominated, Democrats will defer divisions within the party over its ideological direction to 2028, when internal debates between moderates and progressives are likely to come to a head.

But while Biden has secured the support of party leaders from the left and the center in his reelection bid, intra-party factions could still have one opportunity to do battle next year in the writing of the party platform, a wonky exercise that has in recent years played host to major ideological debates. In the last three presidential election cycles, Israel has emerged as an issue that splits the party’s establishment from its left-wing activists.

In a president’s reelection year, the party’s platform usually remains relatively unchanged from four years earlier. The main goal, Democratic activists tell Jewish Insider, is to avoid controversy and cede control to the president to set the agenda. But that doesn’t mean activists critical of Israel will not take the opportunity to try to force a messy debate over Israel to the forefront, and bring that internal debate to the public. 

The committee tasked with drafting the platform will not be named until next year, and Democrats don’t expect any movement until at least the spring. The Democratic convention — where the platform is approved — will take place from Aug. 19-22 in Chicago. 

One key question is who will serve on the committee. The Democratic National Committee chair has final say and is ultimately responsive to the president. But in 2016 and 2020, Democrats included activists from the party’s progressive wing on the committee to placate progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“In 2016 there was a sharp division,” said one Democratic activist and DNC member who was on the platform committee in 2012. Sanders-appointed members included James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute who for decades has tried to push Democrats away from its historic closeness with the Jewish state, and Cornel West, a professor with a history of hostility toward Israel who is now running as a Green Party candidate. The result: heated drafting sessions but few major changes to the platform. For the first time, the 2016 Democratic platform condemned the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

The 2020 platform looked slightly different. That was the first year the Democratic platform expressed the party’s opposition to Israeli efforts to annex the West Bank and to expand settlements, although the platform drafting committee in 2020 voted down an amendment that would have mentioned the “Israeli occupation.” The measure was backed by J Street, the left-wing Israel advocacy organization that has been a leader in efforts to push Democrats to the left on Israel. 

“In 2024, the goal of Democrats is to reelect the president, so the platform is going to continue to reflect the president’s policies,” said Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council for America.

“We also have space created because of groups like J Street and others who have opened up the process, that the party has to be very responsive,” said Zogby, who plans to push for next year’s platform to include support for conditioning American aid to Israel, a controversial policy backed in some form by J Street and some progressive members of Congress. (J Street spokesperson Logan Bayroff told JI that the legislation supported by the group would create “aid use restrictions” on American aid to Israel, which he said is “an important distinction” from conditioning aid and that the group does not support cuts to the aid, but rather restricting its use to certain purposes.)

Zogby acknowledges that, with Biden at the helm of the party, it is unlikely that any major policy changes on Israel will take hold. But he plans to raise the issues, as he has for nearly four decades. “It’s a question of what do we push for, it’s not a question of what they’re gonna do,” he said.

A spokesperson for J Street declined to say whether the group will take a role in the 2024 platform writing. 

“Back in 2020, for some unexplained reason, the Biden folks felt that they needed to have, like, a unity commission,” said one Democrat who used to hold senior roles at the party’s conventions. “Basically, even though they resoundingly beat Bernie Sanders, they had to, like, almost do parity and bring all these lefty people onto all these committees. So the question is, are they gonna do that again?”

“I am sure everything possible will be done so that there’s no fight over it, because everybody agrees that if there’s a fight about Israel, everybody loses,” said Susie Turnbull, a former DNC vice chair. 

Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council for America, said she does not expect any major Israel-related changes.

“In 2024, the goal of Democrats is to reelect the president, so the platform is going to continue to reflect the president’s policies,” said Soifer, who pointed out that the 2020 platform is broadly pro-Israel — calling for billions of dollars in annual security assistance, supporting Israel’s right to defend itself and advocating for a two-state solution. “I don’t foresee a lot of opportunities for dramatic change, nor do I see controversy around the Israel portion of this platform.”

According to one former party leader, the position is simple: “I am sure everything possible will be done so that there’s no fight over it, because everybody agrees that if there’s a fight about Israel, everybody loses,” said Susie Turnbull, a former DNC vice chair. 

“Are the most liberal members of Congress going to complain? Maybe, but it’s not going to mean anything in terms of the platform,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton administration senior staffer who now runs a PR firm in Washington. 

Of course, a desire to avoid controversy does not always make it so. In 2012, a year that was supposed to be smooth sailing at the convention to support then-President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, the platform draft that made it to the floor had scrapped a previous reference to Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel. (It also lacked any mention of the word “God,” another change from 2008.)

A vote was taken on the floor of the Charlotte NBA arena, where convention events were being held. Loud booing was heard when those two clauses were added back in. The voice vote was taken three times until the convention chair declared that it had passed. 

The Democratic activist who served on the platform committee that year said they felt “everlasting embarrassment” about failing to notice the omission before the platform reached the floor.

The Times of Israel called it “the night the Democrats lost control of the Israel message.” 

It’s too early for detailed conversations about the platform, but there are some hints of new ways in which the platform might address Israel. The 2016 U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding, which lays out a 10-year plan for American financial assistance to Israel, expires in 2026 and will have to be renegotiated before then — so that might appear in the platform.

“Some things have changed since 2020,” said JDCA’s Soifer. “The situation in Israel has evolved and it remains to be seen whether the platform would address some current events such as judicial overhaul in Israel or questions regarding the future of Israel’s democracy.”

Rabinowitz said he will be watching “to see how much it talks about regional peace, the Abraham Accords-plus, ‘plus’ being code for Saudi Arabia. That might be interesting and maybe the slightest bit controversial.” Many progressives are skeptical of Biden’s efforts to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and even centrist pro-Israel Democrats have raised questions about proposed concessions to Saudi Arabia.

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