Inside the brewing Democratic convention battle over Israel

Could the man aspiring to become America’s first Jewish president spark a war at the Democratic convention … over Israel?

Last month, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced that she had allowed Bernie Sanders to pick five members of the party’s 15-person platform drafting committee — only one fewer than likely nominee Hillary Clinton. Usually, the DNC chair chooses the committee herself (in consultation with the White House or the winning candidate); for the party’s upcoming convention, however, Wasserman Schultz struck a deal with both campaigns to “make this the most representative and inclusive process in history” by awarding Sanders more power over the platform than any previous runner-up.

At the time, we noted how this unprecedented arrangement could cause some friction in Philadelphia, with Sanders openly planning to push for planks and positions that Clinton & Co. disagree with: a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage, a European-style tax on carbon emissions to curb climate change, a hard asset cap on the big banks (which would force them to shrink themselves), a single-payer health care system and tuition-free public colleges and universities. On each of these issues, Sanders should have enough delegates behind him to start a public spat on the convention floor, if he so chooses.

But since then, one issue in particular has emerged as the most likely to disrupt the proceedings — and divide the party — in the City of Brotherly Love: the Democratic establishment’s staunch and long-standing support for the government of Israel.

The first sign of coming conflict was Sanders’ platform appointees: Cornel West, the public intellectual, and James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, both told the New York Times last week that they oppose Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank and believe rank-and-file Democrats feel the same way. A third Sanders pick, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is a Muslim who has long spoken out in favor of Palestinian rights.

“Justice for Palestinians cannot be attained without the lifting of the occupation,” West declared, accusing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “war crimes” and vowing to battle for a platform that would elevate “the plight of an occupied people.”

West’s views represent a sharp break with previous Israel-centric platforms, which called in 2008 and 2012 for “final status” negotiations designed to produce a “just and lasting” peace that would “contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, top, then from left, James Zogby, Cornel West and Rep. Keith Ellison. (Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Noah Berger/AP, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, AP)

Initially, however, it seemed as if Clinton’s platform drafters might play along. In aninterview last week with the Chicago Sun-Times, Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois — who was then on his way to the West Bank and Jerusalem, where he would meet with Palestinian Authority officials, Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset and Palestinian students and businessmen — revealed he was open to a platform that “elaborates more clearly the wishes, the desires, the aspirations of the Palestinian people and their hope for justice and for peace and equality.”

“Absolutely,” added the Clinton appointee. “I think we can do more.”

But other Clintonites were quick to push back.

“I am sure the Democratic Party platform will reflect long-standing, strong support for Israel,” said Clinton appointee Wendy Sherman, a former top State Department official. “Secretary Clinton’s views in support of Israel’s security and an unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel are well-known.”

Clinton’s senior foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, seconded Sherman, arguing that “Hillary Clinton’s views on Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship are well-documented” and that “her delegates will work to ensure that the party platform reflects them.”

Meanwhile, in Thursday’s major foreign-policy address in San Diego, the candidate herself insisted that “Israel’s security is nonnegotiable” and rebuked Donald Trump for saying that he would “stay neutral” on the issue.

In some ways, the whole Democratic debate over Israel boils down to semantics. Platforms are aspirational documents; they don’t bind a president’s behavior. Both Clinton and Sanders support Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and both favor the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. Unlike West, neither candidate backs the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and Sanders is reportedly“disinclined” to lobby for the inclusion of contentious terms such as “Israeli occupation,” “direct negotiations” or “continued settlement activity.”

Yet it’s clear that Sanders, who has repeatedly called for a “more balanced” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, picked West, Zogby and Ellison for a reason. His goal is likely to send a message — and to get some concessions from Clinton in return.

At the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., party leaders afraid of offending Jewish donors and swing voters — and rewarding Republicans with a ready-made attack ad — called for a floor vote to reinstate language, previously removed by the platform committee, that described Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After three voice votes, the “ayes” and “no’s” seemed evenly matched — but convention chairman Antonio Villaraigosa called it for the “ayes” anyway. He was roundly booed as a result. The New York Times called it “a minor spectacle” that provided “an unruly start to an evening meant to showcase attacks on Mitt Romney by former President Bill Clinton and others.”

The incident demonstrated two things. First, that establishment Democrats — like Clinton — are terrified of tinkering with the platform’s Israel plank, lest they, say, lose votes in Florida. And second, that rank-and-file liberals — more of whom sympathize with Palestine than Israel, according to an April Pew Research Center poll — are now increasingly willing to push back.

Any amendment that fails on a majority vote during the full platform committee meeting can still be brought to the convention floor as a “minority report” if 25 percent of the committee supports it — which should be an easy bar for the Vermont senator to clear. If Sanders’ team were to force an Israel vote on national TV, what may follow wouldn’t be “a minor spectacle,” and the papers would probably use stronger words than “unruly” to describe it.

Already, Clinton’s people are jittery about Sanders going the minority-report route. As one “Democrat close to the platform committee” told the Jerusalem Post, the platform “has to be a practical document that doesn’t hurt the chances of the nominee come November. It has to do no harm, and the most well-written words and best intentions mean nothing if they get Donald Trump elected.”

In the end, this may be what Sanders is counting on: Clinton getting so skittish about Bernie “harming” her on Israel that she agrees to make other platform concessions to prevent it. On the minimum wage. On carbon. On something, anything else.