Bernie Sanders Israel Hillary Clinton_00000000.jpg
Sanders busts status quo on Israel
01:46 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Democrats – seeking to unify after a bruising primary – have sidestepped a potentially messy fight over Israel in the party’s platform, at least for the time being.

Advocates for greater recognition of Palestinian positions think that the progressive surge spurred by Bernie Sanders gives them their best shot yet at reorienting the Democratic platform at next month’s convention. But they’ve run into a party establishment that insists the position won’t change – especially with Hillary Clinton, who has deep ties to Israel, at the top of the ticket.

The drafting committee approved an early draft of the party platform at its final meeting in St. Louis early Saturday, one that mostly hews to what Clinton had wanted on Israel.

But the issue does not entirely go away – later this month the full platform committee will meet and debate the draft, and even after a vote at that level, any draft will need to pass the full convention floor.

The dispute underscores the ongoing conflict between the progressive and more moderate wings of the party, with the potential for fireworks continuing through the platform drafting process this month into the convention in July.

Warning flags were planted as the platform discussions got underway.

“Those who litigate the particulars of a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians by fighting for controversial language in the Democratic platform are severely misguided,” said former California Rep. Henry Waxman, once a senior Jewish lawmaker on Capitol Hill. “Make no mistake: Inserting unnecessarily contentious changes to the platform would serve only to hurt our nominee in November and undermine the prospect of a two-state solution during the next administration.”

Still, members of both sides of the debate came out of Saturday feeling they scored at least a bit of a victory.

“The new language breaks with the party’s practice of framing its aim of establishing a Palestinian state solely in terms of Israel’s interests,” said a statement from Jeremy Ben-Ami, president and founder of J Street, which advocates for Israel but sometimes breaks with the positions of the Israeli government.

“By including parallel acknowledgment of Israeli and Palestinian rights, the party underscores its belief that the only viable resolution to the conflict – a two-state solution – requires recognizing the fates of the two peoples are intertwined,” he said.

J Street signaled it would push to keep the language throughout the process. And the left is expected to raise the issue again at further meetings.

Still, Democratic stalwarts and those close to the committee drafting the platform, however, minimize the effort on the left. They say they’re confident the party’s stance on Israel will remain unchanged and reflect the long-standing record of Hillary Clinton as the party’s presumptive nominee.

Those seeking a shift, however, are cautiously optimistic about the trend of the party’s stance and their power to shift it. For one thing, Sanders’ speaking up for Palestinian rights during the campaign gave new prominence and legitimacy to a viewpoint that the mainstream of the Democratic Party has until now largely shunned. And for another, the platform committee has some members dedicated to pushing the issue.

“We’re at a turning point now,” philosophy professor and drafting committee member Cornel West said at a recent committee hearing on the issue. “For too long the Democratic Party’s been beholden to (pro-Israel lobby) AIPAC and didn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

Sanders criticizes Israel

Sanders, who is Jewish, has been one of the most prominent politicians to forcefully speak out against Israel for what he has called “disproportionate responses” to Palestinian actions.

Sanders gave a detailed list of critiques in a March speech that he delivered from Utah instead of going to the Washington conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which drew every other presidential candidate.

Sanders criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, withholding of tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority and expansion of settlements in the West Bank, saying settlement growth “undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security as well.”

RELATED: Bernie Sanders smashes the Israel status quo

But as he comes to terms with Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sanders is expected to use what little leverage he has left to focus on the domestic policy issues that buoyed his campaign into a national movement, not Israel.

Several Democrats familiar with the debate over the platform say that while this issue is important, it is not one of Sanders’ top issues and not expected to be the policy area where he wants to make his mark and is willing to fall on his sword.

That leaves the vocal progressive wing to fend for itself on the issue, but two prominent supporters – West and Arab American Institute President James Zogby – both sit on the 15-member platform drafting committee. They aggressively pushed the issue at hearings on the party roadmap last week in Washington.

Sanders’ backers want to exclude references to Jerusalem as belonging wholly to Israel, which Palestinians contest, and consider language that labels Israeli settlements in the West Bank “an occupation,” a notion adamantly opposed by Clinton supporters who warn it would undermine the peace process.

At the hearing, Zogby and West clashed politely with former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, who currently heads the S. Daniel Abramson Center for Middle East Peace. In Wexler’s testimony, he argued that the Democratic platform was not the place to litigate views on Israel, nor should it diverge substantially from the United States’ long-standing position in support of Israel.

While the Sanders’ camp was not able to get language on “occupation” of the Palestinians into the platform, Zogby said he was happy the issue was debated and called the language “less egregious” than in the past. He said he would continue to make his case throughout the process.

Concerned that Zogby and West’s viewpoint may be gaining traction at least in the public narrative, Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina representative and now a CNN commentator, sent a letter signed by 60 African-American politicians around the country to the co-chairs of the Platform Committee last week urging them to stick to the traditional language on Israel – a counterpoint to West, a prominent member of the black community.

“The Mideast planks of the previous platform were carefully crafted and have served us well,” wrote Sellers, a Clinton supporter. “We would be well served to stick closely to our previous platform language and ensure that any changes … do nothing to undermine the principles that have given such strength and clarity to our previous platforms.”

Platform tweaks expected

Several sources familiar with the drafting process had expected that the language of the platform would be changed somewhat – but not dramatically – to reflect more about Palestinian aspirations rather than a lessening of support for Israel.

And at the end of the day, the platform is expected to reflect the nominee, and Clinton has a long and detailed track record on supporting Israel in efforts to find a two-state solution throughout her time in the Senate and as secretary of state.

“I think the debate on the facts will clearly reflect the traditional and longstanding position and the same (position) that Secretary Clinton has long advocated, and I have every confidence that she will see that the platform reflects her commitments,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

He said while his group has found some of Sanders’ comments during the campaign “disturbing,” and there is concern about attempts to “incite and excite” the left wing, he believes that the party will largely stick to its current stand on Israel.

After the meetings last week, Wexler said he is confident that the areas of agreement will rule the day, while there will be some acknowledgment of the suffering of the Palestinian people.

“There is a consensus that the party platform is not the proper venue in which to negotiate or litigate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Wexler said. “There also is a consensus that what uniformly, unanimously, all Democrats support is a negotiated two-state outcome, a Jewish, Democratic and secure Israel and a nonmiltarized or demilitarized Palestinian state that give the Palestinian people a right of dignity and self-determination.”

Two members of the drafting committee, one from Clinton’s camp and one from Sanders’ camp, wrote a letter Thursday to supporters of J Street emphasizing broad agreement and saying both sides agree on certain “core principles.”

“As we and our colleagues work over the next few weeks to frame our party’s platform, we’re confident that we can seize this moment and confirm the consensus vision of peace, security and human dignity shared by our party and its supporters,” wrote Reps. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a Clinton appointee to the committee, and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Sanders appointee.

As for Clinton, her campaign expressed confidence in what would come out of the drafting process.

“Hillary Clinton’s steadfast support for Israel, and the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, are well known,” Clinton foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan said. “As we have said previously, she remains confident that the party platform will reflect her views.”

What the party does not want is a messy floor fight at the convention.

In 2012, the drafting committee left language out of the platform recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The language was put back in in a last-minute effort supported by President Barack Obama, but confused delegates booed as the change was announced on the floor.

Wexler, involved in the drafting of that part of the platform four years ago, insisted the outcry was a misunderstanding and that leaving out the Jerusalem reference was due to a simple mistake, but the incident in an uncontested primary year was only followed by more tension in the party on Israel.

Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been strained, including a decision by Obama not to meet with Netanyahu when he traveled to D.C. at Republicans’ invitation to urge Congress to reject the U.S. administration’s deal with Iran over its nuclear program. Many Democrats members of Congress boycotted the address – and voted for the Iran deal.

RELATED: White House ‘surprised’ to learn Netanyahu turned down meeting

Zogby himself doesn’t predict a sharp change in the platform or a contentious convention this summer. But he does believe that in the wake of these recent tensions between the U.S. and Israel and as younger Americans reassess the situation in Israel, American viewpoints are moving in his direction.

“I do think there is a shift in the U.S. in attitudes toward Israel,” Zogby told CNN. “There is a shift in the region, there is a shift in Israel, and I hope the platform reflects some of this shift. But we are not looking for a fight. We are looking for a consensus and I hope we can find one.”

Polls show Democratic shift

Indeed, a May Pew Research Center poll found that Democrats have more sympathy for Palestinians than Republicans or independents, though they, too, still favor Israel by a double-digit margin. The poll also found that self-identified liberal Democrats and Sanders supporters actually had more sympathy for Palestinians than Israel. The Pew poll looked at similar data over time and showed a trend in this direction.

J Street also believes a transformation is underway.

“For a long time the conventional wisdom in D.C. was in order to get support from the Jewish community, you have to espouse the most hawkish positions possible,” said Dan Kalik, J Street’s chief of staff. “What we have seen over the last 20 or so years is that conventional wisdom is not where (people) stand anymore. We do see deep and meaningful support for Israel and its security, but part of that security … is a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians.”

RELATED: Hillary Clinton opposes Israel boycott, unilateral moves on peace process

In Israel, there is less concern about the platform itself than about how the debate reflects a shift among Democrats who increasingly sympathize with Palestinians and are becoming more critical of Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

In addition to the tension between Obama and congressional Democrats, Israeli officials also point to Sanders’ young, liberal supporters who are outspoken about their opposition to Israeli control over Palestinians, with many supporting the BDS movement to boycott Israel.

Republicans, for their part, are looking to capitalize on any public dissension among Democrats. The Republican Jewish Coalition on Tuesday released a trio of videos highlighting Sanders’ supporters’ comments on Israel and painting the Democratic Party as extreme.