WASHINGTON — The kindling has been laid for another flare-up over Israel policy at the Democratic National Convention with a deal on Monday between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over the party's platform drafting committee.
Four years ago at the last Democratic convention, the party establishment was startled when progressive critics of U.S. policy toward Israel turned a routine floor vote into a televised moment, with a significant number of delegates loudly booing proposed party platform language that endorsed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and referred to the “God-given potential” of the American people.
The moment burned short but hot in the collective history of the 2012 campaign. Republicans and conservatives seized on video of the boos, saying it showed a Democratic party far removed from the center.
President Obama, trying to win reelection, reportedly stepped in to get the Jerusalem and “God” language back into the platform, frustrating progressives at an event aimed at highlighting party unity. Obama, of course, went on to win reelection — with the support of Jewish voters, even as Republicans suggested they could peel them away from Democrats thanks to stiffening opposition to U.S. policy toward Israel among the organized left.
Four years later, a deal cut between Clinton, Sanders, and the Democratic National Committee, revealed Monday by the Washington Post, makes it more and more likely that the convention in Philadelphia this July could be déjà vu all over again for Democrats who, on all sides, would rather keep the Israel debate internal rather than splashed across cable.
In recent weeks, Sanders officials have said they see the DNC platform drafting committee as the best place to push Clinton to the left ahead of the general election. And on Monday, they announced that two of Sanders’ five committee representatives would be among the left’s most vociferous Israel critics: Arab American Institute President Jim Zogby and Princeton professor and famed civil rights intellectual Cornel West.
Still, as reports float an imminent debate, Sanders allies privately say that Israel is not a fight the senator himself wants to pick. More likely, perhaps, is the possibility that Zogby or West raise the issue.
Zogby has been sharply critical of the current Israeli government. “You need to find a way to meet the needs of both,” he told the Post Monday. “To say we will satisfy one without the other is a recipe for failure.”
West, one of Sanders’ signature surrogates, has historically been critical of the senator only around a handful of issues — Israel being one.
“We have a vicious Israeli occupation that needs to be highlighted, because occupations are wrong,” West told a progressive web show in June 2015. “I don’t hear my dear brother Bernie hitting that, and I’m not going to sell my precious Palestinian brothers and sisters down the river only because of U.S. politics.”
Sanders generally doesn’t spend much time on foreign policy on the campaign trail, but when he does talk about Israel, it’s usually to condemn Israeli actions in Palestinian territories and expansion into those territories, while also defending Israel’s right to be free of rocket and other terrorist attacks launched against the nation.
He succinctly stated his position on the debate stage this April. "As somebody who is 100% pro-Israel, in the long run, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity," Sanders said, appearing alongside Clinton in Brooklyn before the New York primary.
Statements like that one have made progressive critics of Israeli policy largely accept Sanders as their candidate of choice. Earlier this spring, Sanders hired and then quickly suspended his Jewish outreach coordinator, Simone Zimmerman, for using a vulgarity in a Facebook post to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Clinton, meanwhile, has steered away from criticizing the Israeli government’s policy toward attacks from Palestinian-controlled areas and has spoken of her “unwavering, unshakable commitment” to the longstanding alliance between Israel and the United States.
The divide between Clinton and Sanders on Israeli-American relations electrifies the corners of Democratic politics where the split between an increasingly Israel-skeptic left and foreign policy traditionalists is expanding. (A Pew Research poll on Monday showed a plurality of self-identified liberal Democrats sympathize more with the Palestinians than the Israelis.) But aides to both candidates generally highlight other differences when talking about the Democratic primary.
Clinton hopes to use the Democratic convention to take as many of the Sanders-supporting liberals as she can into her general election coalition.
What Sanders forces do hope to accomplish in Philadelphia and beyond remains an open question among supporters, campaign aides, and former staffers — but Sanders’ singular focus on economic issues and campaign finance would likely make a high-profile fight on Israel a distraction.