WASHINGTON – The Democratic Party should recognize Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank and the rights of Americans to boycott Israeli policies, James Zogby told The Jerusalem Post.
The founder and president of the Arab American Institute and a Bernie Sanders appointment to the Democratic Platform Committee reaffirmed his position in an interview Monday that the party platform should update its language to reflect these views. But he also acknowledged that change is unlikely, at least this time around, after unsuccessfully pushing for new wording in negotiations over the weekend.
According to excerpts of the platform draft agreed upon in St. Louis and acquired by the Post, the party will declare, for the first time, that Palestinians “should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.”
The new language is not satisfactory to Zogby, whose appointment by the Vermont senator and former presidential candidate was greeted with skepticism among some in the Israeli and Jewish-American communities.
“The fact that the word ‘settlement’ has become controversial is troubling,” Zogby said. “And when every president also refers to settlements and says whatever language they use – that they are unhelpful, or contrary to the pursuit of peace – when you can’t even use the word settlement in the platform, that’s unsettling.”
He added: “I’m told that saying Palestinians have a right to govern themselves is a major advance?”
Zogby fought for additional language, and will continue to do so through the Democratic convention in July. But presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s envoys to the committee arrived in St. Louis for negotiations with Sanders’s team carrying a precise message: Don’t even try to insert language on Israel’s “occupation” or settlement activity in the West Bank.
Her committee members came prepared to negotiate aggressively on issues of climate change and criminal justice reform, Zogby said. But “nobody really came to me to negotiate this,” he continued.
“They just came to me and said, ‘we’re going to win this and you’re going to lose.’ “There’s a fear to even talk about it in public,” he added.
President of the Arab American Institute Dr. James J. Zogby.
(Photo credit: LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)
Neither term has ever been used in the Democratic platform – an aspirational document outlining where the party stands every four years. Zogby is among five appointees to the committee. Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was offered six appointments, while the DN C itself chose four. The party’s convention will be held in Philadelphia July 25-28.
Most Israeli leaders and Jewish- American establishment organizations reject the terms as reductive narrative constructs pitting Israel as a colonial aggressor against collective Palestinian victims.
Many sharply disagree that use of the term “occupation” is a fair or productive characterization of the root of the decades-old conflict.
And leaders from both major US parties say that reference to an “occupation” predetermines the outcome of final-status negotiations toward two sovereign states.
But those appointed to the committee by Sanders believe her refusal to update the document represents a failure to accept the realities on the ground and the non-partisan, decades-old policy of the State Department under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
The St. Louis meeting was only one of several negotiations, and Zogby says that, while language on Israel is largely “resolved” in the draft, he expects to continue the fight at a meeting in Orlando next month.
“I certainly don’t have any expectation that it will change,” he said of the language. “But there are times when the discussion itself is important, and continuing the discussion is more important. Being silent will be the worst thing.”
Zogby has long advocated for a recognition of Israel’s presence in the West Bank as an “occupation” of Palestinian lands. His involvement in shaping the Democratic Party platform dates back to the 1988 elections, and ever since, he has played a significant policy role in consecutive Democratic administrations, promoting business investment in Gaza and the West Bank throughout the 1990s and securing appointments by US President Barack Obama to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2013 and 2015.
At the heart of Zogby’s argument is that the platform is a useless political document unless it outlines strong policies that bridge voters with their candidates and, ultimately, their elected leadership.
He says the platform committee is typically comprised of top policy wonks who ultimately put their policy caps to the side to instead focus on the politics of the day.
Clinton’s appointees fought for a condemnation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel – another first in the DN C platform – but the language was constructed such that Democrats only condemn its efforts to “delegitimize” the Jewish state.
While Zogby does not support delegitimization efforts targeting the State of Israel itself, he does believe in the rights of those seeking to boycott Israel’s West Bank “occupation” and settlement activity and thinks a sizable portion of the Democratic base agrees with him.
“I found it intriguing that, when they were describing the language, they were saying they were opposing the BDS movement only to the extent that it was delegitimizing Israel,” Zogby said. “I found their description of it far less of concern than the [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo language, for example, which outright condemns BDS actions, whether or not they’re construed as delegitimizing Israel.”
Earlier this month, Cuomo ordered a halt to all New York state business with entities working with or supporting BDS – part of a larger effort on the state and local effort to target the campaign.
Ultimately, the St. Louis language declares that Democrats “oppose any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.”
Insertion of this new language was a top priority for Clinton, according to her aides.
Not so for team Sanders. “I still think that was unnecessary and in a way politically gratuitous,” Zogby said.
Clinton’s convictions over what support for Israel looks like appear to have squashed any significant debate this year over platform language. But the lack of a fight also may be attributed to a lack of interest from Sanders, who has brought up the issue only a handful of times throughout a year of fierce campaigning.
“Is it one of his top five issues? I don’t dare guess that it is,” Zogby said, while noting the issue is certainly of importance to the candidate.