The First Draft of Biden’s Israel Policy

Pro-Israel advocacy groups and progressive operatives are each claiming policy victories in the battle over the Democratic Party platform.

David Klion
July 27, 2020
Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken host a luncheon in honor of Brazil’s then-President Dilma Rousseff at the US State Department on June 30th, 2015. Image via YouTube

ON JULY 15th, Jewish Insider reported that the Democratic Party platform, which is scheduled for a vote this week, would not include any reference to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank—a leak attributed to an unnamed “individual with knowledge of the internal process.” This omission seemed to signal defeat for the progressive drafting committee members appointed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, who received the second-most delegates in this year’s presidential primary after the presumptive nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. The article also quotes Mark Mellman, a former AIPAC consultant and the president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI)—a lobbying group founded last year that has poured millions into primary races against progressive candidates who have criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians—as saying he expects a “strong pro-Israel platform that reflects Joe Biden’s long and firmly held views on Israel.” 

Indeed, Biden has long had a warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And besides the absence of the word “occupation,” there is plenty of language in the platform draft—which has since been released in its entirety—affirming robust Democratic support for Israel in terms that have come to read as boilerplate. The draft “oppose[s] any effort to unfairly single out and delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.” It also describes “a strong, secure, and democratic Israel” as “vital to the interests of the United States” and asserts that the “commitment to Israel’s security, its qualitative military edge, its right to defend itself, and the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding is ironclad.” The last of these refers to an Obama administration pledge of $38 billion in military aid to Israel over 10 years—signaling an unwillingness to condition aid to Israel, and rendering any criticism of Israel effectively toothless. The Biden campaign has been consistent on this point: Biden’s main foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken told DMFI in May that as president, Biden “would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions that it makes. Period. Full stop.”

Still, while pro-Israel advocacy groups are eager to claim policy victories in the platform fight, some progressive operatives are too. Although they are disappointed that the word “occupation” does not appear in the platform draft, multiple progressives I spoke to with knowledge of the platform negotiations point to language supportive of Palestinian rights that did not appear in any previous Democratic platform. For instance, the platform draft includes a line recognizing “the worth of every Israeli and every Palestinian,” omitting language that appeared in the 2016 platform singling out Israel for its “values of democracy, equality, tolerance, and pluralism.” It also says that Democrats reject “annexation” and “settlement expansion,” whereas the term “settlement” was entirely omitted in 2016 (annexation was not an urgent concern at the time). And in its final line, the 2020 platform draft says that although Democrats oppose the BDS movement, they do so “while protecting the Constitutional right of our citizens to free speech”—a reference to legislation many Democrats have supported that criminalizes BDS. The 2016 platform contained no such caveat regarding a right to free speech.

In addition, in terms of wider foreign policy commitments pertaining to the Middle East, the platform promises to “call off the Trump Administration’s race to war with Iran and prioritize nuclear diplomacy, de-escalation, and regional dialogue,” and to return to compliance with the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal, which many pro-Israel groups opposed. It also calls for ending “the forever wars” that the US has waged across the Muslim world since 9/11; reasserts Congress’s constitutional authority over war powers; pledges to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has produced a major humanitarian crisis; rejects occupying countries and overthrowing regimes in favor of diplomacy; and calls for reduced defense spending—all policies that progressives in the Sanders camp have advocated for.

There is little doubt that the pro-Israel lobby will wield meaningful clout in a Biden administration should Donald Trump be defeated in November. But the progressive wing of the party appears eager to assert itself, emboldened by a handful of victories, such as Jamaal Bowman’s primary upset of Rep. Eliot Engel last month, in which voters seem to be voicing impatience with the status quo on a range of policies, including Israel/Palestine. The platform language is not binding, but it represents the first skirmish in what promises to be a protracted conflict between critics and defenders of Israel, and a bellwether of how responsive a Biden administration might be to a motivated progressive base on Middle East policy.

THE DRAFTING COMMITTEE for the Democratic platform consists of 15 members appointed by Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Tom Perez, including three members nominated by Sanders. As in past election years, through an opaque, closed-door drafting process, the committee receives input from various lobbyists, interest groups, policy experts, and elected Democrats—including, above all, the presumptive nominee himself, whose positions tend to be decisive. There is no straightforward way to assess which groups, donors, or elected officials are providing input to the drafting and platform committees, but it’s clear that both left-leaning groups like J Street and right-leaning groups like AIPAC and DMFI have been in communication with committee members regarding the Israel/Palestine policy plank.

As part of their influence campaign, for instance, DMFI is currently circulating a letter for state legislators to sign ahead of the final platform vote. The letter, the text of which was made available to me, describes its signatories as “pro-Israel Democrats” and holds Palestinians responsible for having “repeatedly refused offers of a two-state solution.” It calls for “a Democratic platform that opposes efforts to delegitimize Israel, including through the BDS Movement or at the United Nations,” without any affirmation of a constitutional right to speech, and urges the committee “to ensure the platform does not make divisive accusations against Israel’s human rights record,” adding, “Human rights are much more widely guaranteed and observed in Israel than in the Palestinian Authority.” While the letter does reject “annexation,” it does not include the words “occupation” or “settlements.” The number of signatures the letter garners and the extent to which the final version of the platform reflects these demands will be measures of DMFI’s, and by extension AIPAC’s, potential sway in a Biden administration.

“The platform is a test of will,” said James Zogby, the president of the Arab-American Institute, a DNC member, and a longtime Sanders ally. “It’s never about policy. It’s about whether or not one side can get the party to jump through a hoop.”

Josh Orton, a senior advisor to Sanders and one of the senator’s appointees to the drafting committee, made the case for including the word “occupation” during a publicly broadcast committee hearing on July 15th. He said the occupation is “no longer a matter of serious dispute,” advocated against US military aid being used to suppress Palestinian human rights, and analogized the Palestinian struggle to the ongoing fight for racial justice in the US. Asked directly, Orton would not elaborate on the internal negotiation process that ultimately resulted in the word “occupation” being left out. But he and others I spoke with had strong words about DMFI, characterizing it as a “front” or a “cut-out” for AIPAC and pro-Israel donors—which they see as the main obstacles to a more balanced Democratic approach to Israel. Several of my interviewees conjectured that pro-Israel groups were taking advantage of the leaked omission of the word “occupation” to boast of their successes to Jewish Insider and other outlets before the platform language was made public, in an attempt to control the narrative ahead of the final platform vote. Mellman vehemently denied that he or anyone else at DMFI leaked the platform language.

“It’s not surprising that AIPAC and its allies are so resistant to the word ‘occupation,’” said Matt Duss, Sanders’s foreign policy advisor, who has long championed all of the foreign policy priorities that the Sanders camp managed to get into the platform draft. “Concealing the reality of the occupation is a big part of their agenda.”

In an email exchange, Mellman affirmed DMFI’s commitment to a two-state solution and opposition to annexation, but repeatedly ignored questions about why the word “occupation” is a sticking point.

The omission is frustrating to advocates of Palestinian rights. “It’s incredibly weak and frankly insulting,” said Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American scholar and the former executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, in reference to the draft platform language. While Munayyer allowed that there are positive nuances compared to past platforms, he expressed bemusement at the refusal to acknowledge the occupation. “It’s 2020, 53 years after the Israeli military occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The fact that they can’t even use the word ‘occupation,’ that they actively refuse to do so—because it’s very clear that there was an effort made to do so and it was denied—makes you think you’re talking to the Flat Earth Society, not the Democratic Party . . . It’s embarrassing.”

Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian American organizer and longtime Sanders ally, said she was “a bit surprised” at the omission. “I feel like the general sentiment in this primary has been moving toward the left on Israel/Palestine.” She described the omission of the word “occupation” as “tone-deaf,” adding, “It’s like, really? That’s not even that controversial.” Sarsour also criticized the language about BDS “delegitimiz[ing]” Israel, calling it out of touch with the base of the Democratic Party. Noting left-wing insurgent successes in recent Democratic primaries, she said, “If you want votes from the progressive wing of the party, this is probably not the way to do it.” Sarsour did say, however, that the inclusion of the terms “annexation” and “settlement” represented a meaningful improvement over the 2016 platform, and that she expects Sanders delegates to make another push on the inclusion of the word “occupation” before next month’s convention.

There is some evidence that the progressive base of the Democratic Party is becoming less reflexively supportive of Israeli policy. The recent upset against Engel, an Israel hawk, by the more dovish Bowman is a signal of this shift. DMFI spent $2 million on negative ads attacking Bowman, who ended up prevailing in New York’s heavily Jewish 16th congressional district by more than 15 points. As several of my interviewees noted, these ads—like DMFI’s anti-Sanders ads during the presidential primary—did not focus on Bowman’s position on Israel/Palestine, which suggests that DMFI is not confident in its ability to sway votes on that issue. Engel’s defeat has also opened up a fight over who will replace him as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, with progressive groups supporting the candidacy of Rep. Joaquin Castro, who has condemned annexation and settlement expansion.

Logan Bayroff, J Street’s director of communications, said “it’s become clear that progressives in the Democratic Party and the American Jewish community have a huge amount of momentum,” and characterized groups like AIPAC as “a still-vocal, but small fringe of voices that are trying to hold on to a outdated, unpopular, unhelpful foreign policy approach.” Beyond the platform fight, he pointed to a letter sent to Netanyahu and his main rival, Benny Gantz, in May by Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen, Chris Murphy, and Tim Kaine cautioning against unilateral annexation of Palestinian territory. But the senators’ letter provides a more complicated picture of how such grassroots momentum is being translated in the halls of Congress: As Peter Beinart reported in Jewish Currents, it was slow to gather signatories after open pressure from DMFI, which opposed it even after it was watered down to resemble DMFI’s own stance on the issue. House Democrats spoke out only after AIPAC signaled that it would allow limited criticism of annexation. 

It will be up to the Biden team to resolve the contradictions between progressive activists and the pro-Israel establishment. Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) and a Jewish Currents contributing writer, told me she suspects that Biden and Blinken “want to avoid making Israel/Palestine an issue in the election.” The tug of war over the platform, then, may best be understood as a struggle to determine what the campaign considers safe.

Zogby, who was not on this year’s Democratic platform committee, but has worked directly on such committees going back decades, including in 2016, said he appreciates the caveat to the BDS language asserting a constitutional right to free speech, which progressives tried and failed to get into the 2016 platform. He also said he was “delighted” to see language affirming the worth of Palestinians—he recalled debates over the 1988 platform, in which Democrats refused to even acknowledge Palestinians’ existence. But he found it absurd that the word “occupation,” which has been used for decades by leaders in both parties, was being treated as an arbitrary red line, and he cautioned that without any pledge to condition aid or otherwise threaten consequences for annexation or settlement expansion, the platform was unlikely to mean much in terms of Biden administration policy. “The platform is better,” he said, “but it’s still about 20 years behind the times.”

The platform may see additional amendments this week, and Duss believes there will be another progressive push for the inclusion of the word “occupation”; last Thursday, Zogby and J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami co-authored an op-ed in The Nation arguing in favor of this point. But ultimately, whether or not the term appears in the final version of the platform will likely come down to the Biden team’s preference. Asked whether Biden believes the West Bank is under Israeli military occupation, whether the party platform should include the word “occupation,” and whether a Biden administration would be committed to ending the occupation, Blinken and the Biden campaign declined to comment.

David Klion is a writer and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.