US Democratic Party: Closer to justice on Palestine?

The most important dynamic is that a US presidential contender garnered popular support for a more progressive position.

Palestinian schoolgirls walk with a donkey as a West Bank Jewish settlement is seen in the background [REUTERS]
Palestinian schoolgirls walk with a donkey as a West Bank Jewish settlement is seen in the background [REUTERS]

The Democratic party’s platform drafting committee hearings in St Louis earlier this month provided another little push forward to Martin Luther King Jr’s belief that “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.

It bent a little bit more in that direction after the Democratic party’s lively public debate and behind-the-scene deliberations resulted in several noteworthy but incremental advances in the long, uphill struggle for a more balanced American position on the Israel-Palestine issue.

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These included a series of subtle but meaningful word changes in the Democratic party’s draft platform of positions on political issues for the presidential campaign.

These reflect a gradual drift from a predominantly pro-Israel tilt towards one that also advocates equal Palestinian rights to sovereignty and dignity.

The 15-member platform committee included 10 of its 15 members who were named by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party machine – both traditional leaners towards Israel – while five were named by Bernie Sanders.

Occupation and illegal settlements

Consequently, the committee did not approve wording proposed by Sanders nominee James Zogby to end “occupation and illegal settlements” in Palestinian lands Israel has occupied since 1967.

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The adopted draft advocates working towards a “two-state solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict” that guarantees Israel’s security with recognised borders “and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity”.

Such small changes in vocabulary that assert the rights of both people reflect real political changes ...


This formulation notably dropped previous wording that had supported a Palestinian state primarily in order to secure a (Jewish-majority) Israel, rather than because both people explicitly deserved equal rights in adjacent states.

Such small changes in vocabulary that assert the rights of both people reflect real political changes, according to interested parties like the more liberal pro-Israel US lobby group J-Street, which advocates Palestinian and Israeli statehood.

It also noted that the platform language breaks with the party’s practice of making a Palestinian state conditional on Israeli security and other interests.

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

It also released a joint statement by two Members of Congress on the platform drafting committee who were appointed by Clinton and Sanders, saying the platform must reflect the hardships faced both by Israelis and Palestinians.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [AP]
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [AP]

Slow but steady change

When I asked Zogby by phone about the significance of these recent developments, he said they reflected slow but steady change on the Israel-Palestine issue taking place among Democratic Party supporters that has been speeded up and brought into the public sphere by the Sanders campaign.  

“This kind of support for two states without the previous conditionality is the most that has ever been said by a Democratic party platform,” he told me.

“Not using the words ‘occupation and settlements’ is the triumph of politics over policy, at a time when Sanders and many other Democrats feel that politics and policy should be the same, in order to achieve integrity in our national policy,” he said.

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His view that the party platform has lagged behind reality is supported by analysts and pollsters who also offer evidence to show that the Sanders and J-Street positions are increasingly supported by both Democrats and Americans as a whole, especially younger people.


Younger Americans are increasingly liberal and progressive and they also continue to move towards a more even-handed position on Israel-Palestine. 

Recent polls by Pew show that liberal Democrats account for most of the increased support for Palestinian rights among Americans in recent years.

Pew also found that 43 percent of millennials (born since 1980) sympathise more with Israel, while 27 percent say they support the Palestinians – three times the 9 percent support level of 2006.

So time would seem to favour a more even-handed US position on Israel-Palestine, which may be rearing its head in the incremental changes just witnessed by the Democratic party platform committee.

The most important dynamic is that a leading presidential contender harnessed significant popular support for progressive positions...


Limited advances

The draft platform will now be debated by the full platform committee in Orlando on July 8-9, and finally will go to the convention floor for a debate, amendments, and vote.

Beyond the limited advances in the platform wording itself, though, this political year has achieved a much bigger breakthrough on the Israel-Palestine issue in the United States in several realms, according to participants and observers of the process.

The most important dynamic is that a leading presidential contender harnessed significant popular support for progressive positions and named five members of the platform committee, including several who spoke out explicitly and forcefully for Palestinian rights alongside Israel’s security.

Sanders himself showed that a candidate could demand even-handed treatment for Palestinians and Israelis and remain a strong candidate, reversing long-held assumptions that such a position would be political suicide.

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“It is very significant that we debated this issue for the first time since 1988,” Zogby told me.

“We won on other progressive platform issues like minimum wage, temporary refugee protection rights, and the death penalty. The big change from now on is that this issue which was not widely discussed in the public eye will be debated widely across the country, ending the deadly silence that has prevailed for so long,” he said. 

The fact that a Jewish-American candidate allowed this to happen is intriguing but not necessarily a central factor. More important is that Israel-Palestine and component issues – including occupation, settlements, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – are all being debated in public forums, within political parties and beyond.

“We have made the Israel-Palestine issue part of a wider message of speaking unvarnished truth on a difficult issue to progressives across the spectrum of political action in the United States,” Zogby said.

“This is no longer a narrow cast issue. It now represents consistent moral and political views of progressives in the wider political arena.”

Rami G Khouri is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at Harward University Kennedy School. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.