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How the Republican and Democratic Platforms Differ on Israel

Contrasting platform language about BDS, Palestinian statehood, and ‘occupation’ presents a picture of two parties drifting apart on matters relating to the Jewish state

Armin Rosen
July 14, 2016

The Republican platform’s language relating to Israel was adopted by the party’s platform committee on July 12. In past elections, the official Republican and Democratic positions on Israel and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were largely identical, signaling the remarkable success of pro-Israel organizations and brass from both parties in ensuring that one of the most emotional topics in international affairs wouldn’t become a partisan issue in the U.S. But that bipartisan consensus is fraying, at least as far as the parties’ official positions go.

The Republican platform language—touted by presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others as the most pro-Israel “of all time”—clearly diverges from its Democratic counterpart. The Democratic platform registered the party’s opposition the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; the Republican platform decries it as one of several “alternative forms of warfare” being waged against the Jewish state. The Republican platform “reject[s] the false notion that Israel is an occupier;” no similar statement appears in the Democratic platform, and the party considered naming Israel as an occupying power in their own platform. The Republicans will seek to “thwart actions that are intended to limit commercial relations with Israel, or persons or entities doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories,” a dig at efforts to sanction or limit trade related to Israeli enterprises in the West Bank or Golan Heights, like the EU’s special labeling of settlement products earlier this year. The Democratic platform opposes BDS, but makes no mention of efforts only targeting lands outside of Israel’s internationally recognized territory.

Unlike the Democratic platform, the Republican platform actively opposes “measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms,” and “call[s] for the immediate termination of all U.S. funding of any entity that attempts to do so”—a provision likely referring to the possibility of the UN Security Council passing a resolution outlining a final status outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that the Obama administration has reportedly considered backing over the years. The Democratic platform includes no such language. Most notably, the Republican platform contains no reference to the establishment of a Palestinian state, although it affirms that the U.S. “seeks to assist in the establishment of comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, to be negotiated among those living in the region.” The Democrats, meanwhile, urge that “Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.”

For Republicans, the differences between the platforms honestly and accurately reflects what the two parties believe about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. This belief that there exists a tangible difference of opinion between the parties comes into clearer focus when looking at the architects of the Republican platform language. During a speech to the Republican platform committee on July 12, committee member Alan Clemmons, a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, exhorted his colleagues to “send a message to the tens of millions of pro-Israel voters who must see that our party stands on faith and principle.” He added that Republicans’ “support for Israel’s well-being is of paramount concern and will not be sold out or dumbed down for the sake of petty interest, ever again.”

Jeff Ballabon, an activist and chairman of the Iron Dome Alliance who was involved in advocating for the platform’s current Israel-related language, told Tablet: “One party is debating whether or not it’s politically expedient to call out Israel for its oppression and occupation. The other is saying what are you talking about, there is no occupation? The difference couldn’t be more stark.”

As Ballabon interprets it, the Republican platform backs Israeli territorial rights in the West Bank, and even “goes beyond stating the obvious that Judea and Samaria are properly Jewish territories” since it rejects the notion of an Israeli occupation, while also making no distinction between the BDS that targets the entirety of Israeli-controlled territory, and BDS that only targets the areas outside Israel’s internationally-recognized borders. This interpretation is consistent with Clemmons’ speech, which was greeted with a standing ovation. “The false notion that the Jewish state is an occupier is an anti-Semitic attack on israel’s legitimacy,” Clemmons said. “It is impossible for the Jew to be an occupier in his own ancestral homeland, a region that his been known as Judea since time immemorial.”

The Republican platform arguably goes beyond Israel’s own policies, too: Israel has not annexed the West Bank and does not consider it to be part of its national territory. It also applies military law in the West Bank in a way consistent with the legal responsibilities of an occupying power, rather than a fully recognized sovereign authority. For Ballabon, Israel’s equivocal official position on the status of the West Bank is all the more reason for the Republicans to back Israeli sovereignty over the territory: “Many positions are taken by the Israeli government diplomatically or legally that are in response to pressures from the outside,” he said. “The point here is to remove that kind of pressure on israel that distorts Israeli decision making and Israeli independence and sovereignty through coercion.”

It’s unclear whether the Trump campaign has the same view of the platform’s meaning as Ballabon and Clemmons do. A statement published on Medium by Jason Greenblatt, the Trump Organization’s general counsel and one of the Trump campaign’s two advisers on Israel-related matters, lauded the platform language, writing that the campaign was “pleased that the committee has recognized that BDS is a modern manifestation of anti-Semitism.” But the Medium statement made no mention of the language rejecting claims that Israel is an occupier.

Even so, both Greenblatt and David M. Friedman, a bankruptcy attorney and Trump’s other top Israel adviser, were involved in drafting and vetting the platform language. “Jason Greenblatt and I worked with the committee and others to finalize and support the language in the platform,” Friedman told Tablet by email.

Tacking to the right of the Democrats on Israel could turn out to be smart politics for the Republicans: Some 70 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Israel, and the relative lack of debate over Israel during the drafting of the Republican platform is in contrast to the Democratic side, where the party’s approach to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the subject of hours’ worth of passionate discussion.

Yet the contrast in the two platforms highlights how the parties are drifting apart on Israel—and how they might be driving a political divide over something that used to be one of the few consensus issues in American politics. “There’s an illusion that the parties are in lockstep,” Ballabon said, “and they’re very far from being in lockstep.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.

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