Sanders’ Challenge to Clinton and Democrats: Palestinian Lives Matter

The party currently supports a two-state solution because it serves Israel’s interests, but not because Palestinians have the right to live as free citizens of their own country.

Hillary Clinton listens to rival Bernie Sanders during the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates' debate in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016.
Reuters

When it comes to Israel, Bernie Sanders is already changing the Democratic Party.

In 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign chose the committee that drafted the party’s platform. On the 15-member panel, three of the four people who focused on Middle East issues espoused fairly conventional “Pro-Israel” views: former congressman Robert Wexler, then-congressman Barney Frank and Obama administration foreign policy official Colin Kahl. Wexler, Frank and Kahl certainly aren’t Likudniks. But they operate within the parameters of the Beltway consensus. Only one committee member --California Congresswoman Barbara Lee—has a history of challenging that consensus in support of Palestinian rights.

This week, the Democratic Party announced the drafting committee for 2016. Hillary Clinton’s campaign chose six members. The only one with a clear Middle East background is former State Department official Wendy Sherman. She too fits comfortably within the Washington consensus, albeit on the progressive side. So does former Congressman Howard Berman, who was among the four members chosen by Democratic National Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Schultz also reappointed Congresswoman Lee.

The big shift is the Sanders appointees. In deference to the Vermont Senator’s electoral success, the party awarded him the right to choose five members of the drafting committee. Three of Sanders’ choices have a profile on Middle East issues: Congressman Keith Ellison, one of the two Muslims in Congress, Arab American Institute President James Zogby and philosopher Cornel West. Ellison and Zogby are party insiders. West is a leftist activist. But all three are impassioned advocates for the Palestinian cause. Together, they virtually ensure an effort to shift the party platform in a pro-Palestinian direction. If the Clinton campaign resists that shift, expect a fight on the convention floor.

Sources close to the Sanders campaign tell me his appointees may propose platform language condemning Israel’s “occupation,” acknowledging Palestinian suffering, and recognizing the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. By any reasonable standard, these aren’t inflammatory demands. For decades, the United States government itself has termed Israeli control of the West Bank an “occupation.” And it’s hardly radical to acknowledge that West Bank Palestinians—who have lived for almost a half-century without citizenship, free movement and the right to vote for the government that controls their lives—suffer as a result.

In today’s Democratic Party, however, such language would represent a fundamental shift.

Officially, the party has supported a Palestinian state since 2004. But it has justified that position almost exclusively by reference to Israeli self-interest. In 2012, for instance, the platform devoted a paragraph to Obama’s military aid to the Jewish state, which demonstrated his “enduring commitment to Israel’s security.” It then added that, “It is precisely because of this commitment that President Obama and the Democratic Party seek peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples, would contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. At the same time, the President has made clear that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met.”

The Democratic Party, in other words, supports a Palestinian state not because Palestinians, like all people, have the right to be citizens of the country in which they live. The Party supports a Palestinian state because it’s good for Israel.

It’s more than a semantic difference. Once you acknowledge that Palestinians are enduring a “brutal” occupation (the adjective comes from former Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom), then ending it becomes morally urgent. If, on the other hand, the only reason to support a Palestinian state is to promote “regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state,” then there’s little ethical imperative.

If you support a Palestinian state to secure Palestinian rights, then its viability matters. A Palestinian state whose people lack access to East Jerusalem is about as viable as a country in Westchester whose people lack access to Manhattan. If, on the other hand, a Palestinian state is only important because it benefits Israel, then there’s little problem with calling for Jerusalem to remain “undivided” under Israeli sovereignty, as the Democratic platform did in 2008.

If you support a Palestinian state because you care about Palestinian rights, then Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal to exile Palestinian citizens by redrawing Israel’s border and thus forcibly exiling them from the country looks horrifying. If, by contrast, you support a Palestinian state only to “sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state” then Lieberman’s plan looks like a creative way to ensure Israel’s Jewish majority.

In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama tried to talk about Palestinians as human beings. “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” he declared in Iowa. But after that statement caused a firestorm, Obama’s spokesmen clarified that the Palestinians were only suffering because of their own bad leaders.

This campaign, Hillary Clinton has barely even tried. The “national security” section of her website contains five references to Israel and no mention of Palestinians. Last October, she issued a statement rightly condemning the “recent wave of attacks against Israelis.” But she never mentioned Palestinian deaths, despite the fact that, according to Human Rights Watch, six times as many Palestinians as Israelis died from the conflict in 2015.

Now Bernie Sanders is asserting, through his appointees to the platform drafting committee, that Palestinians are not mere extras in the Israeli and Jewish story. It’s a fascinating moment. The most successful Jewish presidential candidate in American history is saying that Palestinian lives matter. And he’s daring Hillary Clinton to disagree.