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Sanders appointees want Democratic platform to reference Israeli occupation

'For too long the Democratic Party has been beholden to AIPAC,' committee member Cornel West tells platform meeting
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (right) speaks to voters as social activist Cornel West (left) listens during a campaign rally on 29 January 2016 (AFP)

The committee for drafting the Democratic Party's official platform for the 2016 US presidential race on Thursday mulled including the word "occupation" in reference to Israel's military presence in the West Bank.

Committee members appointed by US Senator Bernie Sanders led the charge for including the word, saying any two-state solution between Israel and Palestine would have to start with an end to the occupation.

"A commitment to security for precious Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel can never be predicated on an occupation of precious Palestinians," said activist and writer Cornel West.

"If we're concerned about security, it seems to me we're going to have to talk seriously about occupation," he said. “If there were a Palestinian occupation of Jewish brothers and sisters would we respond the same way?”

West added that the Democrative party has "been beholden to AIPAC," the pro-Israel lobby in the US, for "too long".

James Zogby, the head of the Arab American Institute, echoed West's comments. 

“Would you not feel that it is more important to include the word ‘occupation’ - which our president, this current president has mentioned and every previous president has mentioned - as a way simply of clarifying that to get to two states an occupation has to end?” he asked.

While other committee members said including the word "occupation" would be prejudging the outcome of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Zogby pointed out that the 2012 platform said that "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel" - a statement that also prejudges the outcome of negotiations.

Matthew Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, also spoke at the committee meeting, saying that supporting the Israeli occupation is against American values.

“Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories ... run[s] contrary to fundamental American values,” Duss said.

“We must reject the idea that we have to sacrifice our values in order to stand with our allies.” 

Clinton supporters disagree

But committee members representing presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton stood against the use of the word "occupation" in the platform.

“I could come up with a list – if we want this platform to get into it – of issues like [Palestinian] incitement," said former congressman Howard Berman, who was appointed by Clinton. “I don’t want that to be what this platform does.”

Robert Wexler, a Clinton supporter who heads the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, agreed.

“No, I would not support, I would in fact oppose the use of the word 'occupation' for the very reason that it undermines our common objective. A two-state outcome will result in an agreement on borders. Once you have borders, the issue that propels your concern as what you refer to as occupation will be resolved.” 

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Wexler said that regardless of whatever ends up being written in the party's official platform, Clinton's views and policies as the Democratic nominee will be unchanged.

“There was a winner of the Democratic primaries and her name is Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton has a decades-long policy regarding Israel,” he said.

While Clinton has declared victory in the race for the nomination, Sanders has not yet conceded - saying that technically Clinton has not reached the magic number of 2,383 delegates needed for an outright victory. Clinton, however, is nearly 400 pledged delegates ahead of Sanders and has the support of the vast majority of party-chosen superdelegates who will vote at the Democratic convention in July.

Sanders, the Jewish democratic socialist senator from Vermont, has vowed to take his campaign all the way to the convention in order to have the greatest possible influence on party policy.

While he says he is a strong supporter of Israel, he has criticised its government's treatment of the Palestinians, notably calling its 2014 military action in Gaza "disproportionate".

Sanders was allowed to appoint five people to serve on the Democratic platform committee, while Clinton appointed six and party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz appointed four.

Among the five people Sanders chose were three outspoken advocates for the Palestinian cause: West, Zogby and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison.