Palestine and the Democratic Party platform: A strategic regression

The Democratic Party platform is a strategic regression on Palestinian rights
6 min read
18 August, 2020
Despite growing support for a more progressive position on Palestine, the establishment wing has reverted to mainstream policies which ignore Palestinian rights.
The establishment wing has reverted to mainstream policies which have alienated progressives. [Getty]
The Democratic National Convention's draft platform for the 2020 elections has created a lot of discussion and controversy, especially relating to policy on Israel and Palestine.

At least 800 progressive delegates have announced their intention to vote No against the platform, with the failure to endorse Medicare for All featuring high among the reasons for this progressive stand. 

At face value, the platform did not present a significant regression from previous party proclamations. In context however, the DNC platform of 2020 missed an opportunity to reflect the priorities of Democratic voters on critical issues like healthcare, the environment, and others. 

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the adopted language falls far short of expectations among progressives and the wider American electorate. The biggest disappointment was over the rejection of language centred on human rights, international law, and the reality of Israeli occupation in the name of "preserving party unity."

The party establishment instead chose to revert to mainstream Democratic policies that are far behind the sentiments of the base. 

Daniel Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel and current distinguished visiting fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, was an ardent opponent of proposed amendments that included conditioning military aid to Israel, mentioning the Israeli occupation, and opposing settlement activity in the name of "party unity." 

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the adopted language falls far short of expectations among progressives and the wider American electorate

This argument could have been compelling, had opinion polls not indicated that nearly 60 percent of all Americans support conditioning military aid to Israel and that a majority of Democratic voters oppose Israeli settlements and annexation. Around 70 percent, meanwhile, favour ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state. 

This important context that the Biden camp is ignoring explains the outrage of progressives in the Democratic Party and beyond. It also shows why even new language opposing annexation and mentioning Palestinian rights to freedom in "a viable state of their own" is not progress as some claim. 

Instead, cowering from mentioning the occupation or holding Israel accountable for violating its obligations as an occupying power (conditioning military aid) in fact marks a significant setback in American policy from previous Democratic and Republican administrations, the Trump administration notwithstanding. 

Read more: Can a Biden-Harris ticket fix America's broken Middle East policy?

In reality, Democratic and Republican positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have long been on a downward spiral. Ironically, this slippery slope got even slipperier after the US assumed the role of hegemonic sponsor of the so-called peace process in the 1990s, with successive US administrations shedding all reference to international law, the occupation, and Israel's obligations as an occupying power. 

The fact is, acknowledging that Israel is an occupying power with clear obligations under international law was not controversial at the onset of occupation. In 1969, the Permanent US Representative to the United Nations told the Security Council that the Nixon administration (1969-1974) "regrets and deplores" Israeli settlement activity, which he said was illegal and violated Israel's obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention as an occupying power.

The Ford administration (1974-77) affirmed this position, as did the Carter administration (1977-1981). In fact, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance described this policy as "unequivocal."

The Regan administration (1981-89) instituted the first serious shift in US policy towards Israeli settlements by saying that its opposition to settlement construction was political, not legal. Still, this Republican administration, which was staunchly pro-Israel and quite reactionary on Palestine, opposed settlement construction as "unconstructive."  

If the rise of progressive candidates is an indication, the pattern of holding on to policies the democratic base has long moved past may prove costly

For its part, the George H.W. Bush administration (1989-1993) was not shy about its position on settlements and the occupation. It did not consider them "controversial."  Instead, it issued its famous letter of assurances to the Palestinian leadership ahead of the Madrid Peace Conference.

In it, the administration affirmed its opposition to settlement construction and the annexation of Jerusalem. The Bush Sr. administration firmly upheld its position, including by a clear threat to withhold loan guarantees to Israel if did not stop its settlement activity. 

US positions went downhill after the launch of the peace process in the 1990s. In 1995, US Congress adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, urging the US to recognise Israel's annexation of Jerusalem and move its embassy to the occupied city, in contravention of international law.

While the Clinton administration (1993-2001) opposed settlement construction as "counterproductive", it also talked about the need to recognise "new realities." Any mention of international law, the occupation, or the annexation of Jerusalem became passé and politically unthinkable. 

Read more: Pro-Palestine Democrat wins reveal weakening influence of Israel money

George W. Bush broke this pattern of omission though, when he spoke out against Israel's separation wall, the need to end the Israeli occupation for peace to be achieved, and strong opposition to settlement construction, including in Jerusalem. This endorsement of what Palestinians consider the basic facts of the conflict was reaffirmed in the Quartet roadmap, which the Bush administration (2001-2009) championed.  

Barack Obama is zealously demonised and hated by the right-wing pro-Israel lobby in the US and the Trump-era Republican party as the "anti-Israel" president. However, his administration was not more progressive than George W. Bush on policy towards Israel/Palestine.

Ironically however, the Obama administration (2009-2017) was more progressive than the Democratic Party of 2020, with Obama speaking openly against settlement construction and the need to end occupation, an occupation the Biden camp could not tolerate mentioning.  

The Democratic platform is in line with Biden's longstanding view that supporting Palestinian rights is simply not worth the domestic political cost

In context, the Biden camp in the Democratic Party stood firm against endorsing policies that he was part of implementing as Vice President. In effect, this regression is far more strategic than previous setbacks in US policy towards Palestine by Democratic and Republican administrations. 

This was not a platform seeking party unity by avoiding controversial positions or new ideas that have no support. It is however, in line with Biden's longstanding view that supporting Palestinian rights is simply not worth the domestic political cost.

Even with Democratic voters overwhelmingly supporting a more progressive and proactive position on Palestine and the wider American public more amenable to backing a Palestinian state, Biden insisted the Democratic party snub these realities and stick to what is comfortable and familiar to him: treating Palestinians as a nuisance worth sacrificing. 

Foreign policy does not win or sink election bids in the United States. However, if the rise of progressive candidates at the expense of mainstream Democratic incumbents for Congress is an indication, the pattern of holding on to policies the democratic base has long moved past may prove costly. 

Nour Odeh is a political analyst and public diplomacy consultant. A former award-winning journalist, Odeh was also Palestine's first female government spokesperson

Follow her on Twitter: @nour_odeh