When The Washington Post announced the Democratic Party’s platform-committee appointments for this summer’s convention, the uninitiated might have been forgiven for wondering why, in a primary contest dominated by domestic politics and policy, a foreign-policy issue got top billing. And yet there it was: “Sanders wins greater say in Democratic platform; names pro-Palestinian activist,” blared the headline.
The lead of the article focused on the party’s decision to allot six platform committee spots to the now-presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, and a healthy five slots to her challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders. But by the fifth paragraph, there again was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Sanders’s slate includes James Zogby, a longtime activist for Palestinian rights as well as a DNC member and official. Zogby currently co-chairs the party’s resolutions committee. His inclusion is a sign of Sanders’s plans to push the party’s policy on Israel toward what he has called a more even-handed approach to the Palestinian cause.
The reduction of longtime Democratic Party activist James Zogby’s career—and, by extension, Sanders’s campaign—to quarrels over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is something to behold. But it’s not surprising. To paraphrase a more generalized saying about the news business: If it’s about Israel, it leads. (It should be noted that this dynamic is one of the Israel lobby’s own making, but that’s for another column.)
That doesn’t mean, however, that picking Zogby holds no significance, or that the looming platform battle over Israel isn’t an important one. Party platforms may be mostly symbolic documents—they’re not binding on candidates—but they are a high-profile venue for setting party agendas and airing ideological disputes. With recent history as our guide, this appears to be exactly what is about to happen in the lead-up to the convention in Philadelphia.
At the 2012 convention in Charlotte, one such fight erupted over Israel. During the drafting of the platform, a foreign-policy wonk and former Defense Department official decided to strike a reference made in the 2008 platform to Jerusalem being Israel’s eternal and undivided capital—an old talking point for the Israeli right and the stateside advocates who so often parrot its positions. But the 2008 assertion was out of step with how the international community regards the holy city—not to mention longstanding US policy, adopted by Barack Obama, as well as a succession of Republican and Democratic presidents before him, of reserving determination of the city’s final status for negotiations. So Jerusalem was initially left out of the 2012 platform.