Democrats debate approach to Israel ahead of drafting party platform

Two witnesses backed the party’s traditional pro-Israel view, while a progressive activist urged an arms embargo against Israel

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The logo for the Democratic National Convention is displayed on the scoreboard at the United Center during a media walkthrough on January 18, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois.

While national Democratic figures fret about whether President Joe Biden should remain the party’s nominee, the standard, bureaucratic business of the presidential campaign ahead of next month’s Democratic National Convention is proceeding as normal. On Tuesday, the party activists tasked with drafting the Democratic Party’s platform met virtually to hear testimony from advocates on issues ranging from gun violence prevention to abortion. 

The 30-minute segment of the meeting that focused on Israel and the war in Gaza featured dueling testimonies from both the pro-Israel and anti-Israel wings of the party, hinting at lingering discontent within the party over how Israel — long a key pillar of the Democrats’ platform — could be treated in the policy document. 

Dana Stroul, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in the first three years of the Biden administration, spoke first, offering a resounding endorsement of the U.S.-Israel relationship and Biden’s broader vision for regional integration, including between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“After the horrific October 7 attack by Hamas against Israeli civilians, the administration implemented an unprecedented effort that combined diplomacy, military equipment to support Israel’s self defense, increased U.S. military presence to deter Iran and its proxies and support for the recovery of hostages still held by Hamas,” said Stroul, now the director of research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She also touted Biden’s support for human rights in the region and in Gaza.

“The president consistently promoted respect for human rights and adherence to international humanitarian law. Recently this focus has prioritized expanding humanitarian access and assistance in Gaza, and improving the protection of civilians during Israeli military operations to dismantle Hamas,” Stroul added.

Her testimony was followed by remarks from Elianne Farhat, executive director at the progressive advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota. Farhat introduced herself as a leader of the “Uncommitted” movement, which urged Democrats to vote against Biden in their states’ primaries to signal disapproval of his support for Israel. The movement garnered over 600,000 votes and earned more than two dozen delegates to the DNC. Farhat called for an “arms embargo” on Israel.

“From my Native to my Arab ancestry, I know what it is like when our country uses our immense power to promote good, as well as when it misuses that power to spread pain, suffering and genocide,” said Farhat, who is part Lebanese. “Today I implore you to include language that unequivocally supports a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and an arms embargo on Israel’s war and occupation against Palestinians.” 

In her testimony, Farhat was questioned by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who sits on the drafting committee and asked her to elaborate on why her perspective should be considered by the platform committee. She warned that failing to incorporate the perspective of voters aligned with the Uncommitted movement could spell victory for former President Donald Trump.

“The multiracial, multigenerational coalition we need to beat Donald Trump is fraying, and the stakes of the November election are too high for anyone to sit this one out, and so we took action,” Farhat said. “We are calling on President Biden and we are calling on Democratic Party leadership and we want to see an aspirational vision for a future into our party’s platform that unequivocally says that the United States of America and Democrats stand on the side of human rights.”

The Israel-Gaza section closed with comments from Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, who commended the Biden administration for its support for the Jewish community and Israel, and for combating antisemitism

“The American people support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and believe, as was reflected in the 2020 Democratic Party platform, that a strong, secure, democratic Israel is vital to the interests of the United States,” Soifer said. “The Democratic Party platform language on Israel should not be diluted from the strong starting point of four years ago. Rather, updates should be made that reflect events that have occurred since then, and the White House’s core policy goals.”

When asked if she thinks the testimony from the Uncommitted movement might affect the policy, Soifer told Jewish Insider she is “not concerned.”

“The platform will be even stronger on Israel in 2024 than it was in 2020 — when it was very strong — reflecting the policy of the Biden-Harris White House and Democrats standing with Israel in the aftermath of October 7,” she said.

After Tuesday’s hearing where activists provided testimony, the 16 members of the platform drafting committee, which is chaired by Louisa Terrell, the former director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, will meet on Thursday to begin the actual drafting of the platform. 

Next week, the 27 members of the full platform committee will consider the platform before it is voted on next month by the full gathering of the Democratic Convention. That committee is chaired by Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

A spokesperson from the Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. 

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