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Democrats urged to denounce Israeli occupation in 2020 platform

Dozens of ex-officials pen letter urging the party to voice 'clear opposition to ongoing occupation'
Palestinians protest against the annexation of the Jordan Valley, 29 February (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Dozens of former national security officials are urging US Democrats to voice "clear opposition" to Israel's ongoing occupation and plans to annex Palestinian territories, as activists push the party to adopt a more even-handed approach to the conflict.

In a letter sent to the Democratic National Committee on Monday and first revealed by the Huffington Post, 30 ex-officials advised the party to include language that explicitly backs Palestinians' right to self-determination in its platform ahead of the presidential elections in November.

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"The 2020 platform should expressly state a commitment to a resolution of the conflict that ensures both Israel's security and future as a Jewish and democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens, as well as Palestinian rights, including self-determination, security and freedom," they wrote.

"It should include clear opposition to ongoing occupation, settlement expansion and any form of unilateral annexation of territory in the West Bank as well as clear opposition to violence, terrorism and incitement from all sides."

The platform

Both major US political parties release their platform before November's presidential elections. The non-binding document outlines the party's principles and policy positions for the following four years.

In their 2016 platform, the Democrats heaped praise on Israel and denounced the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Operatives linked to then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had blocked efforts by Bernie Sanders' surrogates to denounce the occupation and settlement expansion in the document.

"A strong and secure Israel is vital to the United States because we share overarching strategic interests and the common values of democracy, equality, tolerance and pluralism," the 2016 platform reads.

The document acknowledged Palestinians' rights to "govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity", but it did not mention illegal settlements or the occupation. It also said that Jerusalem should remain "undivided" as the capital of Israel.

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The 2020 Democratic platform will be approved at the party's national convention in August. 

With growing criticism of Israel within the party, activists hope that this year will be different.

Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), who served on the 2016 platform committee in her personal capacity, said that over the past four years advocacy for Palestinian rights has become even more prominent in Democratic circles.

"I just don't think that the DNC political apparatus is going to be able to ignore the support for Palestinian human rights that exists among Democratic voters," she told MEE on Monday. 

Sanders, who was leading in the 2020 Democratic race after the early contests before eventually suspending his campaign, has been an outspoken supporter of Palestinian human rights. Last year, he vowed to condition US military support for Israel in order to pressure it to end the occupation.

Berry said Sanders' position on the issue drew "even more support towards him", proving that criticising Israel is a viable position in Democratic Party politics.

"What we have now with certainty is that for you to be a progressive in the Democratic Party, you have to articulate a position that acknowledges human rights in the world," said Berry. 

"That includes Palestinians. It no longer excludes them. We used to talk about an exception on Palestine; that's not allowed to fly anymore."

'Moral issue'

In 2016, Berry proposed platform amendments calling for an "end to occupation and illegal settlements" and backing an "international effort to rebuild Gaza", but they were not adopted.

Renowned author and civil rights advocate Cornel West, who was named by Sanders to the platform-drafting committee, made an impassioned argument in favour of Berry's proposed amendments at the time. 

"Both groups have been terrorised and traumatised and stigmatised. But when you talk about occupation, if there was a Palestinian occupation of Jewish brothers and sisters, we ought to be morally outraged," West said at a meeting in Orlando Florida in July 2016.

'For you to be a progressive in the Democratic Party, you have to articulate a position that acknowledges human rights in the world. That includes Palestinians'

- Maya Berry, AAI

"There's an Israeli occupation of Palestinian citizens, we ought to be morally outraged. This is a moral issue. It's an issue of our time. It has spiritual and moral implications not just about politics, not just about the next election."

This year, the calls for denouncing the occupation in the Democratic platform are coming from mainstream figures within the party.

Many top aides to former President Barack Obama, including Rob Malley, who served as White House coordinator for the Middle East, and ex-deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, signed on to Monday's letter.

The ex-officials urged the Democratic party to reject Donald Trump's "deal of the century", which they said harms Palestinians and endangers Israel's future "democratic homeland for the Jewish people".

Trump's proposal for ending the conflict would allow Israel to keep all of its settlements in the West Bank in exchange for recognising a disjointed Palestinian state without control over its borders and airspace. 

Although Palestinians have forcefully rejected Trump's plan, Israel and the United States seem to be moving forward unilaterally to annex Palestinian territories.

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Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with his chief rival Benny Gantz to form a coalition government that would advance an annexation law. Washington has signalled that it would support the Israeli plans.

Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, describes himself as a Zionist and a "stalwart supporter" of Israel. Last week he said he will keep the US embassy in Jerusalem despite conceding that it "should not have been moved".

But because of the changing attitudes amongst Democrats and Israel's brazen move towards annexation, it will be difficult for Biden to govern with unconditional support for Israel if elected, Berry said.

"It is no longer considered out of the norm to start asking very meaningful questions about what US policy is doing to further harm the rights of millions of people in Palestine," she told MEE.

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