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Democratic tensions over Israel threaten to boil over at Chicago convention

The debate within the Democratic Party over Israel could come to a head this summer at its convention as it faces a significant intraparty divide on how to approach the ongoing conflict. 

Members of the party critical of U.S. support for Israel amid its war with Hamas have rallied around a movement to buck President Biden in the Democratic primaries and vote “uncommitted” as a protest vote against him. The movement has seen moderate success and attained some delegates to be sent to the convention, which will be held in Chicago in August.

Some Democrats are concerned that the divisions on display will just grow worse ahead of the quadrennial process of approving the party’s official platform this summer.

“I do think at the convention, for sure, I would be really surprised if there weren’t significant protests on this issue, and unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a lot that Biden can do between now and then to change that,” said Heather Gautney, a member of the 2020 Democratic platform drafting committee. 

Each party drafts its platform every four years ahead of their nominating conventions after an extensive process to set its policies on all the key issues facing the country. In 2020, then-candidate Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) agreed to form a series of task forces to bridge the divide between two factions of the Democratic Party following a serious primary battle between the two of them. 

From the task forces that developed policy positions on the most critical issues, the Democratic National Convention created a drafting committee composed of some Biden and some Sanders supporters to draft the exact language of the platform. The committee was mostly comprised of Biden supporters, but Sanders supporters did make up a decent-sized minority. 

The committee held a few public hearings featuring testimony on its proposals and eventually submitted the platform to the DNC for final approval at the convention. 

But former members of the drafting committee from past years said that extensive process may not happen in 2024 since Biden isn’t facing serious opposition to the nomination. 

Gautney, who is also a professor of sociology at Fordham University, said the Biden campaign may seek to avoid a “public performance” of the dissent within the party over the situation in Gaza but may provide an opportunity for a “soft debate” on the issue that won’t harm Biden politically. 

“I’m not really sure about this year because there is no Bernie Sanders wing at the table this time,” she said. “He’s running uncontested, and so there isn’t that pressure for him.”

But she noted that Biden has been and will likely continue to be in a difficult position with the party’s divide over the war in Gaza. 

Biden has had to walk a careful wire for months as the death toll has risen in Gaza amid Israel’s offensive in response to the Oct. 7 attack from Hamas that killed 1,200 people. In a sign of how the intraparty criticism is becoming a political headache for him, he issued his sharpest critique yet of the Israeli government’s handling of the war to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call the two leaders had on Thursday. 

Biden told Netanyahu that U.S. policy on the war would depend on Israel better protecting civilians and humanitarian workers. The call came after an Israeli airstrike killed seven World Central Kitchen workers who were providing food to people in Gaza. 

Numerous congressional Democrats have called for placing conditions on additional aid to Israel depending on protecting civilians and allowing humanitarian aid to get through. The internal divisions facing the party could present a difficult challenge for crafting an official policy acceptable across the spectrum of Democrats. 

The 2020 Democratic platform declared that party’s commitment to Israel’s security and right to defend itself while calling for a two-state solution to the conflict and recognizing the “worth of every Israeli and every Palestinian.” It also stated that the party was opposed to any unilateral steps by either side “that undermine prospects for two states.” 

Gautney said the 2024 platform may look similar to the 2020 one because Biden has not strayed much from that language, but the focus may be more so on the state of the divide than the platform itself. 

“I don’t think it will focus on the language of the platform… but certainly at the convention I think that’s where people are going to express their dissent,” she said. 

Jim Zogby, who has been involved in drafting numerous platforms in past election years, said he is unsure what the platform point on Israel will look like but expects it will be “largely cooked as it usually is on the Middle East.” 

Zogby, who is the president of the Arab American Institute, a civil rights advocacy group that advises on policies affecting the Arab American community, said the administration has not had meetings with the community about policy positions. He said they have had meetings with Secretary of State Antony Blinken but not the White House. 

“I’m going to continue to hope to change the policy, change in language, change in outreach, a sincere effort to understand what our concerns are and try to accommodate them,” he said. “I think it’s critical for November. I think it’s critical just for sound policy. But they haven’t shown an inclination to do that to date.” 

Zogby noted that the administration has reached out to Arab American leaders in various states, but the meetings have been more focused on getting their support than discussing policy. 

“People have come away from those meetings pretty frustrated, that they wanted to talk policy, they wanted to talk about cease-fire, they wanted to talk about aid to Israel. There was no discussion about any of those issues,” he said. 

Zogby said he considers himself in the “change Biden” group rather than the “abandon Biden” group, but the abandon Biden movement is “getting ammunition every day” in turning against the president, citing the recent sale of F-35 fighter jets to Israel. 

All of this could culminate in the platform feeling like “another slap in the face” to those frustrated with the administration and lead to protests at the convention, he said. 

“The odds are better that [protests] will happen, and I don’t think anyone is in a position to stop that. I think it’s a pretty dangerous environment,” Zogby said, referring to the anti-Vietnam War protests that rocked the 1968 Democratic convention. “We could very well get a replay of ‘68 in Chicago, which is not going to be pretty.”

Democratic strategist Jon Reinish said the intensity of the protests will depend on where the war stands at the moment, but Biden has changed his tone in the past few days with the deaths of the World Central Kitchen workers. 

“The current strategy has gone on for too long and nobody’s winning,” he said. “So [Biden] is absolutely correct, and I think that the party is absolutely correct, to recognize that and to not only push our ally but also show their own voters that they recognize the deterioration of the facts on the ground.”

He said he expects Biden will let the protests proceed as he has not argued that members of the party shouldn’t vocalize their point of view. He said protests happening at the convention is not necessarily harmful, but he views Biden’s response to the deaths of those workers as a “major turning point” to usher in a new phase of the war. 

“I think meaningful facts on the ground, provided they are seen adequately and communicated adequately, that will mean something,” Reinish said. “Is that going to make every person who’s currently protesting on the issue, sit back and say, ‘I’m gonna put my bullhorn down’? No, but if people see changing facts on the ground toward a more acceptable situation, I think that that does alter the facts and levels of protests.”

Laura Kelly contributed.

Source: The Hill

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