The Dishonest Democratic Platform on Israel

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Finishing touches applied at the venue of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, on July 24, 2016.
Finishing touches applied at the venue of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, on July 24, 2016.Credit: David Ake/AP

Corrupt political behavior, George Orwell famously taught, usually begins with corrupt political language. With the Democrats holding their convention this week in Philadelphia, let’s take their platform on Israel as exhibit A.

To be fair, the platform has its merits. It says Palestinians deserve “independence and sovereignty.” That’s progress given that during the campaign, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly said they deserve only “autonomy” , a phrase Likud leaders have long used to suggest local Palestinian self-government under Israeli military rule

The platform also says a Palestinian state should be “viable,” which is important because Netanyahu has publicly rejected the principle that guided both the 2000 Clinton parameters and the 2007-2008 negotiations between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas: That to be viable, a Palestinian state must be based on the 1967 lines, with land swaps.

Ideally, the Democratic platform would have mentioned the 1967 lines explicitly, as Barack Obama did during his big Middle East speech in 2011. ca  But by saying a Palestinian state must be “viable,” the platform at least gestures in that direction.

Finally, the Democratic Platform twice mentions that Palestinians deserve “dignity.” That might seem obvious, but given that top Republicans deny that Palestinians exist as a people at all, and previous Democratic Platforms have spoken about the two state solution only as a matter of Israeli self-interest  , merely acknowledging Palestinian humanity represents a step forward.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, other language in the Democratic Platform would make Orwell scream.

Start with the party’s pledge to “oppose any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations.”

The term “delegitimize” means questioning the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. But during the Obama years, the major Israel fights at the United Nations haven’t been about Israel’s existence. They’ve been about Israel’s march toward permanent, undemocratic control of millions of stateless West Bank Palestinians.

In 2011, for instance, the Palestinians pushed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The resolution didn’t question Israel’s right to exist. To the contrary, it called for a future “where two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders.” 

In 2012, the Palestinians successfully upgraded their UN status to non-member observer state. But this didn’t delegitimize Israel either.

To the contrary, the UN resolution upgrading Palestine’s status specifically endorsed “the vision of two States: an independent, sovereign, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine living side by side in peace and security.” 

This spring, the Palestinians circulated a resolution denouncing settlements and settler violence. It too endorsed “two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.

To be sure, some UN activity—the famed 1975 Zionism equals racism resolution, for instance—genuinely challenges Israel’s existence. But, contrary to the platform’s implication, the UN resolutions that have gotten the most attention during the Obama years haven’t “delegitimized” Israel.

To the contrary, they’ve explicitly legitimized Israel’s right to exist within its original, democratic boundaries. By falsely suggesting that such resolutions delegitimize Israel, the Democratic Platform essentially opposes any UN resolutions that criticize Israeli settlement building, even though the United States has for decades opposed such settlement building itself.

It gets worse. After opposing any pressure on Israel at the UN, the platform says that a two state deal must be “negotiated directly by the parties.”

Why that’s a sacrosanct principle, the platform doesn’t say. After all, Israel wasn’t born via direct negotiation; it was born via UN vote. Nor has the US made “direct negotiations” sacrosanct in other conflicts. In the 1990s, for instance, the Clinton administration backed UN resolutions on the conflict between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. Obviously, Israel and the Palestinians must ultimately agree on any deal.

But given Netanyahu’s explicit opposition to any Palestinian state worth the name, and the massive power disparity between the two sides, outside pressure isn’t an obstacle to achieving a two state deal.

It’s the only way to achieve a two state deal. Ruling out international involvement, and expecting Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a two state agreement on their own, is like ruling out federal involvement in the South in the 1960s and expecting Alabama Governor George Wallace to negotiate a just and lasting agreement with Martin Luther King.

Finally, the Democratic platform says that Jerusalem “must remainan undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.” But Jerusalem isn’t such a city today. Israel has literally erected a separation barrier through the city, cutting off roughly 100,000 Palestinian residents from municipal services.  

Lawyer Daniel Seidemann says that in his 20 years of handling Jerusalem residency rights cases, he had never heard of a Palestinian from East Jerusalem living in city’s Jewish, Western half.

As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted in 2012, Jerusalem “was never unified in the way that people talked about it. We have to sacrifice the slogan because we have to face the reality of life.” 

But the Hillary Clinton staffers who wrote this year’s Democratic platform aren’t primarily interested in the “reality of life” for Israelis and Palestinians.

They’re primarily interested in the political reality of the 2016 campaign. And they fear that any platform that diverges significantly from the AIPAC line will leave them vulnerable to Republican attack.

That may or not be correct, but it’s depressing nonetheless. Dishonesty in pursuit of electoral gain is still dishonesty. And if Hillary Clinton won’t speak honestly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while running for president, what hope is that there that, once elected, she will do anything to solve it.