Biden Faces Two Dueling Approaches on Israel

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1. Shaping the Democratic Party’s platform on Israel

As the pre-election party conventions approach (or at least their truncated coronavirus-adjusted versions) it’s also time for the quadrennial debate over each party’s platform, a lengthy document of guiding principles that requires formal approval at the conventions.

Platforms are among those things that party officials love to fight over and voters couldn’t care less about. After all, it’s hard to find many voters who actually pore over these documents, compare candidates based on specific issues, and make an educated decision at the end of the process.

But it would be wrong to dismiss the platforms and the process leading up to their formulation.

For starters, it is a beautiful expression of democracy in action—breaking down the terms “Democratic” and “Republican” into specific action items and trying to find language that best represents the majority views of party members on each topic.

It also serves as an important window into the soul of the party. In other words, no one expects Donald Trump or Joe Biden to run to the platform and check the text each time they’re about to make a policy decision, but the document does serve as an important reminder to those in power of where their supporters stand.

On the Democratic side, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force last week released its platform recommendations, a 110-page document intended to draw centrists and progressives closer together on issues of the economy, climate change, criminal justice reform, education, healthcare and immigration.

Republicans, on the other hand, are considering simply rolling over the existing 2016 platform, though it would need some adjustments. (In many instances the platform attacks the “current president”—a term that had a whole different meaning in 2016.)

But it wouldn’t be a debate without the traditional fight over each party’s policy toward Israel. (Remember the 2012 Democratic convention showdown over not including Jerusalem in the platform? For those who don’t—it was added, eventually.)

This week, Democrats will begin drafting their platform, and—as expected—they’ll be facing two dueling approaches on Israel: 

On the left, J Street—along with a group of rabbis and former Obama administration officials— is leading the drive to include a clear rejection of Israeli annexation of all or parts of the West Bank and a recognition of Palestinian rights. 

Coming from the center, the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) PAC is urging members to sign on to its own proposal. Their language supports a two-state solution, continued U.S. aid to Israel, and urges “both parties to refrain from unilateral actions that could undermine a two-state solution.”

The differences between these two approaches may sound subtle, but they are very clear: Progressives are focusing on stopping Israel from moving ahead with annexation and warning “against these destructive steps.” DMFI, on the other hand, calls on “both parties to refrain from unilateral actions.” 

DMFI stresses the need to continue U.S. military aid to Israel based on the current levels and conditions set by the Obama administration, while J Street, which supports U.S. assistance to Israel, does not include any specific mention of it in its proposed language.

These nuances accurately describe the fault line of current Democratic policy toward Israel: Will Joe Biden, if elected, launch a maximum pressure campaign to stop Israeli annexation, or will he stick to a non-committal approach of condemning both sides if they take unilateral steps? Will a Biden administration use America’s $3.8 billion annual aid package to convince Israel not to annex, or will it accept the Obama-era notion that conditioning aid (or even restricting its use) is off the table?

The outcome of the platform debate over Israel will give Biden a good sense of how the party views the issue and where he may want to stand in order to avoid conflict with the base.

2. Why platforms are worth examining

Take a look back at the 2016 Republican convention which approved, with no real opposition, a major change to its platform on Israel by rejecting the two-state solution. At the time, it was seen as no more than an anecdote of a campaign that didn’t stand a chance, spearheaded by right-wing Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians who didn’t represent the party’s mainstream foreign affairs establishment. (The names David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, at the time Trump’s advisers on Israel, were largely unknown in Republican circles, as were the activists working with them to amend the platform.)

But then Trump won the election and turned America’s Middle East policy on its head. Who could have known he’d move the embassy to Jerusalem, take Israel’s side on key issues and all but do away with the two-state solution? Well, those who bothered reading the platform should have known. It’s all there, on page 47.

3. Why Chris Van Hollen’s amendment matters

Last week, Maryland U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent Israel from using the military aid money it gets from the U.S. “to facilitate the unilateral annexation of such territories” or for deploying U.S. defense systems in the territories that Israel will annex.

Some Democrats have been signing on to Van Hollen’s amendment, while AIPAC called the move “dangerous” and said it would “weaken Israel’s defenses.”

Van Hollen’s amendment has little practical significance, but it could be instructive in terms of future relations between the Democratic Party and Israel. In a sense, Van Hollen and those backing the amendment are forging a third way—not the progressive Sanders-AOC-McCollum-Jayapal approach which threatens Israel with real cuts to foreign aid, and not the centrist Schumer-led position of voicing concerns over annexation, but refraining from any consequences. Instead, a new mainstream could be forming, one that is more willing to take on Israel than the centrists but less aggressively than those on the progressive left.

4. Trump’s anti-Semitism monitor is monitoring J Street

But wait, there’s more!

Last week, J Street tweeted a call to its supporters to back the anti-annexation amendment. It was accompanied by a large photo of President Trump sitting, listening to Israeli PM Netanyahu, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, former adviser Jason Greenblatt, and ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

Elan Carr, the U.S. envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, was quick with an angry response.

J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami shot back, calling on Carr to “focus on his day job – fighting actual Anti-Semitism instead of being a political hatchet man for @realDonaldTrump.” He added that the photo was from an actual event at the White House.

Offensive or over-sensitive? Dog whistle or an innocent illustration?

Those who still have available attention span in these crazy times are invited to debate.

5. The Peter Beinart debate; Cliff Notes version

Except for those in the Jewish community willfully living under a rock, it was hard to avoid the storm following Peter Beinart’s latest column, in which he departs from his support for a two-state solution, adopting instead a joint, Jewish-Palestinian, one-state.

Too busy to follow the debate? Ignoring your twitter feed in favor of daydreaming of a post-COVID beach vacation?

No worries. Here’s the brief:

Beinart wrote an exhaustive piece for Jewish Currents explaining why he believes Israel’s actions have made a two-state solution impossible, how a one-state is welcomed by many and can lead to equality and peaceful coexistence, and why it is not out of line with the idea of Zionism. (If you have the time—definitely read it.)

He then published a New York Times op-ed which gives the gist of the claim. (Read it. It’s pretty short.)

Then all hell broke loose.

Turns out that everyone has something to say, mostly against Beinart’s position.

Israelis, pro-Israeli centrists and right-wingers, blasted Beinart. Their main point – who is he to sit in New York and take away our country? (No required reading here, I just summed it up for you.)

Liberal Zionists had a more nuanced approach, questioning both the practicality of Beinart’s plan, and its moral basis. (Recommended reading: Yehuda Kurtzer in Tablet, and Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz.)

Need some straight forward questions and answers with Beinart on issues raised by his article? Read his interview with Ben Sales at JTA and listen to Ori Nir’s APN podcast interview.

And just one more: for those who actually care about the meaning of either solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israel Policy Forum has a comprehensive paper dissecting the various options and spelling out their pros and cons.

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