On Israel, a New Consensus

The Democrats’ platform changes on Israel-Palestine, while far from perfect, are evidence of significant progress.

By Jeremy Ben-Ami

Tagged DemocratsIsraelPalestine

The approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict set out in this year’s Democratic Party platform marks a step forward from the party’s prior position and an advance in the state of the public conversation about the region in American politics.

The platform reflects compromise reached after much discussion and some disagreement. While far from perfect, it does break new ground by acknowledging the need for Palestinian statehood, not just as an Israeli interest, but as an answer to the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.

The platform promises that the party and its leaders are committed to “work[ing] toward a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiated directly by the parties that guarantees Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty and dignity.” It expresses the conviction that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights and needs, each deserving of independence, respect, and security.

That sentiment should not be revolutionary. It has formed the heart of the U.S. approach to the conflict under President Obama, who has insisted on the need to recognize the common humanity of both sides.

As the President said in a speech to Washington D.C.’s Adas Israel Congregation in May 2015, “Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well….The rights I insist upon and now fight for, for all people here in the United States compel me then to stand up for Israel and look out for the rights of the Jewish people.  And the rights of the Jewish people then compel me to think about a Palestinian child in Ramallah that feels trapped without opportunity.”

This approach reflects a growing consensus that there are real needs and obstacles on both sides of this conflict and a desire to see the United States playing an active peacemaking role, bridging gaps and bringing the parties together. This is a consensus that extends beyond the Democratic Party and includes most American Jews—80 percent of whom, according to election night polling in 2014, support a two-state solution, and 85 percent of whom support active U.S. leadership to resolve the conflict.

Yet the Democratic platform had never before reflected this consensus view. The 2012 platform made no reference to the Palestinians’ right to “independence, sovereignty, and dignity”—or their right to anything at all. It presented them solely as an antagonist of Israel—an unhelpful approach antithetical to the process of peacemaking.

This change is evidence of the significant progress that has been made in recent years in convincing politicians of the changing beliefs and political dynamics around the conflict.

There is still significant work to be done in future platforms to continue this evolution. The platform, for instance, reiterates the position that Jerusalem should remain “undivided” and the capital of Israel, ignoring the fact that Jerusalem is largely made up of neighborhoods that are either exclusively Jewish or exclusively Arab and that most serious negotiations toward the two-state solution have recognized the need to create a Palestinian capital in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

It also fails to cite U.S. opposition to Israeli settlement expansion—even though every American administration since 1967, whether Democratic or Republican, has officially opposed settlement expansion as illegitimate and counterproductive to peace. President Obama and his Administration have expressed over and over again their deep frustration with settlement expansion, characterizing it as a major obstacle to progress. The time has certainly come for the Democratic Party to do so as well.

As it did in the language about the two-state solution, the platform should emphasize the concerns and failings of both sides, rather than taking an “either/or” stance and endorsing the positions of one side at the expense of the other. For instance, while the platform committee was right to oppose delegitimization of Israel through the BDS movement, it should have added a challenge to settlement expansion as well. That kind of sober and realistic approach is what’s needed if the United States is to help Israelis and Palestinians make real diplomatic progress.

Ultimately there will always be points of disagreement and dissent in the party on an issue as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even those of us who would have liked to see the platform go further can still feel deeply encouraged by the progress that has been made.

By putting forward respect for both Israelis and Palestinians as a core principle, the Democrats took a pragmatic and principled position that shows deep regard for the U.S.-Israel alliance, as well as a commitment to advancing better futures for Israelis and Palestinians alike. They took a huge step toward unifying behind an effective, proactive vision of what American foreign policy can do.

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Jeremy Ben-Ami is president and founder of J Street, the political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.

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