Biden bucks Progressives, won’t denounce Israeli Occupation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks past US Vice President Joe Biden as he prepares to sign the guestbook at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010 - UPI/Debbie Hill

Colum Lynch

Foreign Policy  /  August 6, 2020

The Sanders wing has scored a lot of victories in the Democratic platform—but didn’t get all it wanted on Israel.

In early July, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other influential progressives were convinced that they had secured a critical concession from Joe Biden’s campaign: For the first time, the Democratic Party platform would assert that Palestinians had a right to live free of foreign “occupation,” a scarcely veiled reference to Israel.

But days before a draft platform was released on July 15, the presumptive Democratic nominee personally weighed in, according to three sources familiar with the discussion, ordering his advisors not to include any reference to Israeli “occupation.” The decision, according to these sources, followed heavy last-minute lobbying by pro-Israel advocacy groups. Biden aides subsequently phoned progressive leaders and urged them to drop their demand to declare Israel an occupying power, arguing that the inclusion of the phrase threatened to undermine unity within the Democratic Party.

“The question of whether to allow the text to refer to ‘occupation’ or use the phrase ‘end the occupation’ was taken to the vice president and he said ‘no,’” Jason Isaacson, the chief policy and political affairs officer at the American Jewish Committee, told Foreign Policy. “This is not an issue on which the party can bend because it would be contrary to the position of Joe Biden.”

The retreat reflected the reluctance of the former vice president to reverse decades of staunch support for Israel, even as Biden and his party are expressing growing support for re-establishing diplomatic ties with the Palestinians and reinforcing the need to pay greater heed to Palestinian rights. It also marked something of a victory for the party’s establishment, which has sought to preserve close relations with Israel, even as its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has moved increasingly close to the Republican Party and its standard-bearer, President Donald Trump.

In January, Trump unveiled a long-awaited Middle East peace plan that was heavily tilted in favour of Israel and that offered the Palestinians limited sovereignty with no authority over territorial waters, air, border, or security. The 181-page plan, which was negotiated by Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, was immediately rejected by the Palestinian leadership.

“The party platform section on Israel and Palestine is a clear victory for those supporting a return to mainstream Democratic policies of the past and a loss for the progressives seeking more restrictive or conditional support for Israel,” said Peter Mulrean, who served for three decades in the State Department and subsequently oversaw U.N. aid programs for Palestinians.

“The outcome is not a real surprise,” Mulrean said. Progressives, he added, made “real headway” on issues from climate change to justice reform, but “they didn’t get their way on Israel, which the mainstreamers worried would be a real liability with certain voters. That’s how political negotiations work.”

The dispute over Israel comes as the campaign is facing a rebellion from within the party’s progressive wing, with more than 275 Sanders delegates signing a letter criticizing Biden’s foreign-policy team, citing concerns that it is staffed by officials with conflicts of interests, according to a report in HuffPost.

The notion that Israel is an occupying power on Arab lands it conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967 is firmly supported by international law. Multiple U.N. Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have described Israel as an occupying power, and previous Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents have said as much. In January 2008, President George W. Bush said that “there should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967.” President Barack Obama, too, referenced the “daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation” in his 2009 Cairo speech.

But there has long been resistance to including such language in the party platform. During Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run, the platform made no references to occupation and didn’t even mention Israeli settlements, which have gradually swallowed up Palestinian lands in recent decades. But support for a tougher approach to Israel has been growing in the party, fuelled by the increasing influence of progressives and reinforced by resentment among more mainstream Democrats over Netanyahu’s growing alignment with the Republican Party.

That effort got a boost in May, when a group of 32 Democratic foreign-policy mandarins—including Anthony Lake, who served as national security advisor during the Bill Clinton administration; former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot; and Avril Haines, who is overseeing foreign policy for Biden’s election campaign transition team—urged the campaign to strike a fairer balance between Israeli security and Palestinian rights than previous party platforms. Previous Democratic Party platforms, they wrote, have “been nearly silent on the rights of Palestinians, on Israeli actions that undermine those rights and the prospects for a two-state solution, and on the need for security for both peoples.”

The letter-writing campaign—which the liberal advocacy group J Street helped organize—recommended that the platform “expressly state a commitment to a resolution of the conflict that ensures both Israel’s security and future as a Jewish and democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens, as well as Palestinian rights, including self-determination, security and freedom. It should include clear opposition to ongoing occupation, settlement expansion and any form of unilateral annexation of territory in the West Bank as well as clear opposition to violence, terrorism and incitement from all sides.”

Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who also signed the letter, said he felt it was important to explicitly mention “occupation” to send a clear signal of opposition to the “creeping annexation” that is likely to occur in the coming years, whether Netanyahu makes good on his pledge to annex major portions of the West Bank or not.

“The everyday creeping annexation has taken place for the last 53 years and will continue unless there is a focus on ending the occupation,” he told Foreign Policy.

Biden’s campaign has shown a willingness to take a significantly tougher approach to Israel than did Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

The latest version of the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform expresses clear opposition to the Israeli annexation of West Bank territory and the expansion of Israeli settlements. The party platform reaffirms opposition to the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement. In early July, the campaign floated platform language with key progressives that would have underscored the right of Palestinians to live free of occupation. Jewish Insider and HuffPost previously reported that the platform committee discussed the possibility of including the phrase “occupation.” But the initiative faced intense pushback from pro-Israel advocates.

Biden agreed to take it out. Efforts to convince Sanders and his delegates to drop the matter did not succeed.

Taking the microphone during a virtual July 27 platform conference, Clem Balanoff, a Sanders delegate, offered a set of amendments that would have acknowledged the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, toughened the language on settlements, and prohibited U.S. money being used to facilitate annexation or the violation of Palestinian rights.

In making his case, Balanoff noted that American and Israeli leaders have previously acknowledged the need to end the occupation, citing a 2003 remark by Ariel Sharon: “What is happening is an occupation. To hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation, I believe that is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians,” Balanoff quoted Sharon saying. (Sharon later backtracked on those comments, following protests from right-wing critics.)

In response, Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama, acknowledged that the platform had not met everyone’s hopes but stressed that it calls for restoring diplomatic ties with and resuming humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians.

“For the first time, we say clearly and by name our opposition to Israel’s annexation of territory in the West Bank,” he said. “We state clearly that we will continue to stand against incitement and terror. And for the first time, we recognize the right of Palestinians to live in a state of their own.”

Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and key Biden advisor, argued that including Sanders’s proposed amendment would “divide our party at the very time we need to be uniting in order to defeat Donald Trump.”

In the end, Biden’s delegates voted down the Sanders amendments 117 to 34, with five abstentions.

The Biden campaign decided to “walk a fine line,” Kurtzer said. “It’s the kind of balance you would expect from a party that wants to distance itself from anything Trump has done but can’t go as far as some of the progressives would like.”

Despite the setback, several key progressives said they nevertheless were pleased with some elements, such as the explicit criticism of illegal annexation and expanding settlements.

“This platform demonstrates real, tangible progress from the 2016 platform and previous party platforms,” said J Street spokesperson Logan Bayroff.

Still, the semantic fight has left some wondering.

“I’m baffled by the refusal to put the word ‘occupation,’” said James Zogby, a Palestinian rights advocate who served as a delegate on the 2016 Democratic platform committee. “This is the first time we have mentioned the word ‘settlement’ and the first time we have called for an independent, viable Palestinian state. It’s a better platform, but it’s 30 years behind the times. No votes to lose by mentioning the word ‘occupation.’”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy