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July 29, 2004

Dems Finalize New Pro-Israel Platform

http://www.jewishjournal.com/politics/article/dems_finalize_new_proisrael_platform_20040730

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, left, with Robert Wexler, Democratic congressman from South Florida. Photo by Israel Hadari/EPA

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, left, with Robert Wexler, Democratic congressman from South Florida. Photo by Israel Hadari/EPA

The Democratic Party wants to send the right message to the American Jewish community about its priorities in the Middle East, but its platform fails to include several positions Jewish groups recommended.

The platform, finalized this weekend in Miami, resolves to uphold the close relationship between the United States and Israel. It also negates a Palestinian refugee "right of return" to Israel and says the armistice line ending Israel's 1948 War of Independence -- known as the Green Line -- cannot be the basis for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, implicitly recognizing some Israeli claims to the West Bank.

"It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice line of 1949," the draft reads.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), who drafted the language, expressed delight that her proposal was adopted "word for word."

"It's perfect," she said.

However, the platform ignores calls from several Jewish organizations to explicitly endorse the "road map" plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, support Israel's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank and justify Israel's West Bank security fence.

"A party platform is not supposed to specifically negate or support every item of a country's agenda at the moment," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who helped write the Middle East section of the platform. "The language that is contained in the platform is entirely consistent and supportive of the road map."

The American Jewish vote is being watched closely in this year's presidential election largely because of President Bush's support for Israel and Jewish approval of the policy positions Bush has laid out in the Middle East.

The platform could be an opportunity for Democrats to solidify their traditional base of American Jewish support with policy positions that match Bush administration support for Israel.

The passages define Democratic Party policy for the next four years. The draft platform as a whole now goes for an up or down vote at the convention; no one expects it to be defeated.

The American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) laid out policy recommendations for both political parties last month that included support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.

No word is expected on the Republican platform until next month -- the Republican convention isn't until the end of August, a month after the Democratic one -- but Bush already has endorsed Sharon's plan.

The AJCommittee also advised the platform committees to endorse the road map that the United States crafted with the United Nations, European Union and Russia, and to express support for Israel's right to construct its security fence. The fence has drawn fire because it juts beyond the Green Line in some areas into land the Palestinians want for a future state.

"What we came to say is, in these cases, you should be supporting these things," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, executive director of the AJCommittee's Los Angeles chapter, who addressed the Democratic platform committee last month in Santa Fe, N.M.

He said he told the platform's writers that "the Jewish community is watching this very closely, very carefully."

One drafter suggested that references to the road map were avoided in the Democratic platform because the Democrats were not interested in endorsing a plan shaped by President Bush and touted by Republicans as more effective than President Clinton's earlier efforts.

"No, we somehow didn't mention Republican proposals," the drafter said.

Instead, the draft platform forsakes such details for more general themes.

"We will ensure that under all circumstances, Israel retains the qualitative edge for its national security and the right to self defense," the draft reads.

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said it's unrealistic to expect the Democratic Party to go into great detail in its platform because it must touch on so many topics. Platform crafters still hope to streamline the document this year.

Forman said Jewish Democrats did not have to push hard for a strong platform.

"I've seen nothing come out but good stuff," he said.

The current platform reinforces aspects of the 2000 Democratic Party platform, including support for Israel's qualitative edge in national security.

It also reiterates Democratic support for Jerusalem as Israel's capital and a commitment to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those who have seen the draft say it also reiterates Democratic support for Jerusalem as Israel's capital and a commitment to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It's a good statement of policy. It incorporates what has increasingly become a bipartisan expression of support for the general outlines of an ultimate resolution of this problem," Jess Hordes, director of the ADL's Washington office. "We're

pleased."

Hordes was not worried that the platform did not go into specifics on issues like the security barrier.

"A platform does not have to cover every specific aspect. The candidate has made his position clear on the fence, as has the administration," he said.

Democrats say a fuller exposition of their views on Israel may be found in statements that the campaign of presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), put out late last month to Jewish supporters.

That document highlights positions Kerry has outlined in Congress and on the campaign trail, such as support for the Gaza withdrawal plan and the security fence. It also lays out Kerry's guiding principles for Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which include not forcing Israel to make concessions that compromise security, requiring a credible Palestinian partner for peace talks and increasing funding and coordination for Israel's fight against terrorism.

As a vice-chairman of the platform committee, Wexler traveled to Israel and met with senior leaders there, including Sharon, to gauge the country's priorities. Wexler said Sharon expressed concern about Iran's nuclear capabilities, which will be reflected in the platform document.

"A nuclear-armed Iran is an unacceptable risk to us and to our allies," Wexler said.

Wexler also stressed the need for the United States to reassess its ties with Saudi Arabia, given Saudi financial support for Palestinian terrorist groups and recent suggestions from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah that Zionists have been responsible for terrorist attacks in the kingdom.

The final draft excoriates the Bush administration, saying its polices "have failed to take effective steps to stop the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs."

Democrats repeatedly have pointed to Bush's support for Saudi Arabia as a weak point in the administration's Middle East policy.

Bush appeared to be showing sensitivity to the Saudi linkage, vigorously defending the kingdom's record in a speech Monday.

"Saudi Arabia is working hard to shut down the facilitators and financial supporters of terrorism," Bush said in Oak Ridge, Tenn. "The government has captured or killed many first-tier leaders of the Al Qaeda organization in Saudi Arabia, including one last week. Today, because Saudi Arabia has seen the danger and has joined the war on terror, the American people are safer."

The ADL and AJCommittee pushed for the parties to resolve to fight international anti-Semitism as well as enforce sanctions against Syria for supporting terrorist groups.

Domestically, the Jewish groups asked for an expansion of hate crimes legislation and support for a bill that would expand religious freedom rights for employees on the job. They also reiterated opposition to vouchers that could be used by students in private or parochial schools, and to faith-based initiatives, the federal funding of religious social services programming.

But Jewish Democrats said they have focused less on the platform's domestic policy aspects, confident they would meet the approval of most Jewish voters.

"The only area we have to compete with the Republicans is with U.S.-Israel relations," Forman said. "I've never felt so good about our ability to do so as we do today."

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