The Party’s Over for Pro-Israel Dems

By Jonathan S. Tobin

Commentary Magazine

May 24, 2016

The names of those chosen to be on the Democratic Party platform committee were announced yesterday, and the headlines were about Bernie Sanders getting his due. Sanders was able to name five of the 15 members of the committee with Hillary Clinton getting six and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz naming four. The group will have plenty to argue about as they decide just how far to the left they will tilt as Democrats prepare for the general election. But it is also painfully obvious that one of the clear points of disagreement will be about Israel and the Palestinians. Three of Sanders’ picks are outspoken opponents of Israel. While there are some clear supporters of the Jewish state among the others chosen, there are also others who are deeply critical of Israel. It is not clear that such a group can possibly arrive at a consensus and avoid a painful floor fight about how “even handed” Democrats will claim to be about the Middle East conflict, we do know one thing, any pretense of this being a pro-Israel party is now officially exploded.

The reports that the Sanders camp is planning on making demands that the platform move away from the unambiguously pro-Israel document it has put forward at past conventions were confirmed when we learned the names of the committee members his campaign selected. They include: Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim in Congress and a fierce critic of Israel though he does have good relations with Minnesota’s Jewish community; James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute and someone who has fought for many years to distance the Democrats from the Jewish state; and academic Cornel West, an advocate for the BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — movement that advocates for economic war on Israel in order to isolate and ultimately destroy it.

Among Clinton’s picks was Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress think tank, who is not an opponent of Israel per se but a fierce critic of the Netanyahu government, even if her group did allow the prime minister to speak at one of their events. 

Wasserman Schultz chose the committee chair Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland as well as Representatives Howard Berman of California, both of whom are generally considered strong friends of Israel and Jewish philanthropist Bonnie Schaefer. But she also chose Rep. Barbara Lee of Texas who joined those ganging up against Israel during the time of the 2008 conflict with Hamas. As JTA noted, the left-wing J STREET lobby has endorsed all five of the members of the House that are on this committee.

It would be wrong to prejudge what they will produce but suffice it to say with such a group no one should expect their work to say anything about Jerusalem being Israel’s capital or to note that Israel has already taken risks for peace and been repeatedly rejected.

At best, such a committee will give the country a platform plank that will be, as Sanders intends, one that puts democratic Israel on the same moral plane as the terror-supporting Fatah kleptocrats of the Palestinian Authority and the Islamists of Hamas who make no secret of their desire to eliminate the Jewish state and to commit genocide against its people. Democrats will spin it as an approach that is pro-peace and recognizes Israel’s right to exist alongside a Palestinian state, but it will almost certainly disingenuously label Israel as being as much to blame for the conflict as the terrorists seeking to destroy it.

As for the Iranian nuclear threat, we already knew that Democrats regard support for President Obama’s policy of appeasement of that regime. There was never any doubt about the platform supporting a pact that ensured Iran would not only get international approval for its nuclear program but would be able to get a bomb within a decade after it expired since President Obama made the deal a partisan litmus test. But the presence of Wendy Sherman — chief administration negotiator with the Iranians as well as the architect of Bill Clinton’s failed nuclear deal with North Korea and a Hillary Clinton choice — on the committee is an interesting touch.

All of which should leave pro-Israel Democrats wondering where they stand in their party.

Over the last 40 years as Republicans have switched from being the party that was ambivalent about Israel to the one where support for it was nearly universal. At the same time, the growing influence of the left led many Democrats to drift away from a position of strong support for the Jewish state. During this period, pro-Israel Democrats have taken umbrage at the effort of Republicans to use their party’s stands on this issue to persuade Jewish voters to abandon their longtime political home. They branded such discussions as an illegitimate attempt to turn Israel into a political football and dismissed the notion that Democrats could no longer be relied upon to back the Jewish state, even though the presence of opponents of Israel grew within their ranks. Congressional Democrats' decision to choose to back President Obama on Iran rather than to stand with the pro-Israel community was the culmination of this process.

In that sense, the composition of a platform committee is a minor affair that merely confirms what we all already knew. But the point about the platform is that up until now Democrats still cared enough about being perceived as friends of the Jewish state that they still bothered to write a document every four years that, at least on paper, reconfirmed their position as a pro-Israel party.

Given the number of adamant opponents of Israel on the committee, we know there can be no plank about the conflict that will not place the party at odds with what has been a bi-partisan consensus on the issue. Moreover, if the Sanders forces are not satisfied with what will already be a departure from past stands, then the Clinton camp can have no confidence that an attempt to tilt the party even more towards the Palestinians will fail on the convention floor. As I noted yesterday, the spectacle of the will of the majority of the delegates being thwarted by party officials intent on passing a pro-Israel document won’t be repeated.

That means that although they may find the GOP alternative to be so repulsive that it gives them no choice but to stick with their party, pro-Israel Democrats must, if they are honest, now admit they are no longer a clear majority within their party. Sanders and the far left may not yet be in complete charge of the Democrats, but their influence is undeniable and increasingly decisive.

Democrats may argue, as Sanders does, that even-handed doesn’t mean anti-Israel. But in practice, as Sanders illustrated this spring when he not only wrongly blasted Israeli efforts at self-defense as “disproportionate” but also made wild, exaggerated claims of Israeli killing civilians that show his mindset. It is one thing to be “pro-Israel and pro-peace” as J Street claims to be or even to assert that appeasement of Iran is in Israel’s interests. But it is quite another to have prominent Israel-bashers and BDS advocates among those in charge of declaring where the party stands on important issues.

The Democrats have ceased to be a pro-Israel party and become one where Israel-haters are not only welcomed but given honor and power. If they are honest, pro-Israel Democrats must understand that they are on their way out in their old political home. Anyone who doesn’t understand that’s one of the clear outcomes of the 2016 campaign is in a state of denial.