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Did Bernie Sanders Choose the Wrong People To Push Democrats for Shift on Israel?

George W. Bush paved the way for Republicans and Democrats alike to recognize Palestinian statehood. In June 2002, Bush introduced his Road Map to Peace, becoming the first American president to officially endorse an independent Palestinian state. In 2004, for the first time in their history, both parties incorporated Bush’s new stance in their official platforms. If a Palestinian State is ever created, Bush should be honored as one of its founding fathers.

Efforts by left-leaning Democrats to include recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination were made before 2004, of course, but were always rebuffed. The most notable drive, which played out on the floor of the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, was spearheaded by that year’s sensationally successful presidential aspirant, Jesse Jackson. The African American firebrand, who won 13 primaries and caucuses, withdrew his Palestinian plank at the last minute and made do with his success in convincing the party to describe South Africa as a “terrorist state.” 

Already notorious for his infamous 1984 “Hymietown” comments about New York Jews, Jackson’s bucking of conventions on Israel may have played some role in driving away some Jewish voters from Michael Dukakis. Even if he did, however, it made only a negligible difference in the Democrat’s crushing defeat to George Bush Sr. in November.

Bernie Sanders was one of the few white politicians to endorse Jackson’s presidential runs in both 1984 and 1988. Entering Democratic politics despite his political independence, Sanders described Jackson as “one of the great leaders of our time.” Nonetheless, while he described Israel’s policy of “breaking hands and feet” in the first intifada as a “disgrace,” Sanders did not embrace Jackson’s call for Palestinian independence. In a feisty March 30 press conference in which he endorsed Jackson, Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, was repeatedly badgered about his position on the Palestinians. He stubbornly insisted on laying blame for the Middle East “morass” on both sides equally and lambasted Arab states for calling for Israel’s destruction. 

It’s been a pattern that has repeated itself throughout his career. In August 2014, Sanders’ town hall meeting in Cabot, Vermont famously exploded in mutual recriminations and rage when Sanders insisted on presenting Israel’s side of the Gaza conflict as well. In recent days, he has repeatedly asserted his support for Israel’s right to exist and America’s obligation to protect that right. Perhaps he is trying to preempt the kind of anti-Israeli vitriol that could erupt at the Democratic National Convention, though in this case, he has only himself to blame. By appointing Cornel West as one of his representatives in the committee that is charged with formulating the Democratic platform, Sanders may have set a match to what could very well turn out to be a Democratic powder keg.

West, who worked for both Jackson campaigns, first met Sanders by virtue of the progressive mayor’s support for the African American preacher. Embracing him in the current campaign, West has described Sanders’ agenda as even more progressive than Jackson’s. He has unsuccessfully tried to pry African American voters away from Hillary Clinton, but was nonetheless appointed as one of five representatives on the platform committee that the Democratic Party allocated to Sanders in an effort to placate him. From a Jewish/Israeli point of view, it brings the Democrats around full circle: With Sanders’ blessing, West will try to finish the job that Jackson started in 1988.

West is a harsh critic of Israel, even when compared to another Sanders’ appointee, James Zogby, the prominent Arab American academic and activist who has described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a war criminal. When speaking about Israel, West uses the kind of language that appalls most American Jews. West supports BDS, has described Gaza as a “concentration camp” and “the ‘hood on steroids” and has equated the Palestinian struggle with Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. The Harvard and Princeton “public philosopher” wants to shatter pro-Israel narratives prevalent in the U.S. and to counteract supporters he describes as Israel apologists, one of whom, you may be surprised to hear, is President Barack Obama. In 2014, West said that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza and that Obama “had blood on his hands.”

The problem with West and Zogby is that they may very well throw out the baby with the bath water and harm the Democrats’ prospects in November in the process. Even if their anti-Israel positions represent the consensus of Sanders voters or even of the majority of liberal Democrats who, according to a recent Pew survey, have more sympathy for Palestinians than for Israel, – and that seems unlikely – a fight on the convention floor in which Sanders’ representatives use that kind of language risks convulsing the party and driving away voters, and not only Jews. Even in a year in which Donald Trump is the alternative.

It’s not that one cannot comprehend the left’s wish to change the tone and language of the Democratic platform on Israel and the Palestinians. It does, indeed, view Palestinian rights through the sole prism of Israel’s well being. In the 2012 version, U.S. support for a two-state solution is portrayed a function of the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. A two-state solution would “contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state”, the platform asserts, without a word on occupation or the denial of Palestinian rights. Israeli right-wingers and sympathizers in America from AIPAC rightwards may have gotten used to this kind of blanket support, but the world outside has changed, mainly, though not exclusively, through Israel’s own doing. Just read the statements and headlines made over the past two weeks in the wake of Moshe Ya’alon’s deposal and Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister: it’s hard to see how leftist liberals can continue to sympathize with an Israel that is portrayed by some of its own right wingers as succumbing to extremism and fascism. 

Platforms may not have a direct influence on an elected president but they do reflect the zeitgeist. Support for Israel’s creation was played out in the platforms of both major parties in the 1944 and 1948 presidential elections. Civil rights were first placed at the forefront of the Democratic Party’s consciousness in the 1960 and 1964 platforms. The liberal arc of Democratic politics was exhibited in party platforms since 1980 just as the counter movement of the GOP to strict social conservatism has been on prominent display in the Republican platforms. 

Platforms, of course, don’t bind elected presidents. They can, however, divide the parties that nominate them. And as a recent University of Georgia study found, divided parties inevitably lose elections to united ones. A few weeks ago, Republicans were supposed to be the conflicted party, but roles are starting to reverse. A fierce fight in the Convention over Israel would only accelerate that process. 

There is a big gap between encompassing sympathy for the Palestinians and even advocating a more evenhanded and active U.S. approach to Middle East peacemaking and the kind of anti-Israeli positions articulated by Zogby and West. Their tone and their content stray significantly from the American mainstream. Their language will ultimately be rejected by Clinton and the Convention, but they will nonetheless provide excellent openings for Republicans to drive a wedge between Democrats and independent moderates in general, and Jewish moderates in particular. Their prominence at the Convention would allow Trump apologists to deflect charges about their own candidate’s tolerance for hatred of Jews. 

Sanders would then bear responsibility for unleashing anti-Israeli sentiments, of the kind that he has always avoided, into the American political mainstream. He would taint the Democratic Party in the process. He would thus harm Clinton’s chances of winning the elections, assuming she is the candidate, though it’s hard to tell, frankly, if that isn’t his ultimate intention in the first place.

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