Bill Clinton gave a terrific speech, as it was almost certain that he would. But over the long run, the most significant event in the convention’s second day will be seen to be the kerfuffle over the platform and Jerusalem. Not that platforms are important–neither Obama nor any other president feels obliged to consult the platform when deciding how much, or little, to push for a fair resolution on Israel-Palestine or any other issue. But it was important as an early sign of resistance to the Israel lobby–a lunch counter sit-in kind of moment, which will be looked back at for years to come.
Until yesterday, AIPAC and other players of the Israel Lobby were able to create, and then bask in, the illusion that Israel enjoys unqualified support from both parties, whatever it does. “Pro-Israel” congressional resolutions are regularly rolled through by votes like 420-10, creating the sense that any respect for Palestinian rights and aspirations is completely marginal among the American public. But such votes don’t reflect the underlying reality. Israel is popular in America, Israelis more liked than Palestinians. There is a widespread consensus–in which I share–in favor of Israel’s security. But the consensus is not that one-sided, there is growing recognition that Palestinians too have a legitimate claim for rights in the lands and cities in which they and their ancestors dwell. If you look at the poll data, Americans favor Israel over Palestine by margins like 3-1 (but not 20-1). Perhaps forty percent of Americans believe US policy should favor Israel no matter what the circumstance. But an equal or greater number (depending on the poll) believe the United States should attempt to be even-handed, not favor either side. This division in American public opinion is not reflected in our one-sided congressional votes. But it made itself heard on the floor of the Democratic convention, I believe for the very first time.
The issue was Jerusalem, and whether the Democratic platform should state something that is not Barack Obama’s policy, and nor the policy of any of his predecessors. Israelis know that not a single foreign country has its embassy in Jerusalem, and no country recognizes Israel’s right to do with the city whatever it wishes. It is a Muslim and Christian city as well as a Jewish one, with a significant Palestinian history and population. Every American president has recognized that a final peace settlement will involve provision for Jerusalem that recognizes Palestinian rights in the city.
Presumably the original Democratic platform writers –in passing over the issue– recognized that reality too. The Israel lobby squawked, and Obama quite understandably decided he didn’t need a political battle over something in the party platform, which he can, in practice, simply ignore. But half of the Democrats in the hall refused to recognize Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem, and squawked back. In those contested voice votes was reflected something closer to the true state of American public opinion about Israel-Palestine. And I would add, as was the case with the erstwhile consensus against gay marriage–Israel’s actual grip over the American public opinion is subject to change as well.