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Debating Palestine

Comment
Dr. James J Zogby


Thirty years ago I mounted the podium of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia to open the first ever political party debate on Palestinian rights.

Looking at our 1,500 delegate-supporters wearing “Palestine Lives” T-shirts and carrying “Statehood Now” placards, I was overcome with emotion.

However, I recognised there were those who sought to silence the debate and pretend it wasn’t happening.

Polls had shown that if a secret ballot was taken, 70 per cent of the delegates would have supported us.

In the next day’s Press coverage, one prominent pro-Israel Democrat was quoted as saying: “I’m scared. Nothing like this has ever happened before... [We] went all out to keep this issue from being debated on the floor and we were unable to stop it.”

Israeli newspaper Maariv went further: “Once an Arab lobby representative took the floor, even if for a mere 10 minutes, Israel lost the battle. Israel’s supporters shamefully flunked at the convention... never before had so many PLO flags been seen waving on so many American TV screens.”

There are lessons to be learnt from that period that can guide our work today.

Three factors made this debate possible: the courageous leadership of Reverend Jesse Jackson; the hard work of dedicated African Americans, Arab Americans and progressive American Jews; and changes in US perceptions created by the inspiring sacrifices of young Palestinians in the midst of their Intifada.

The last 30 years have been difficult ones for supporters of Palestinian rights.

The Oslo process created expectations that “peace was at hand” and then, after a few years, dashed these hopes to the ground.

Israeli propaganda, helped by US politicians, worked overtime to regain lost ground by blaming the Palestinians for the failure of peace-making efforts.

Additionally, the tumultuous events of the past two decades have focused attention on areas other than Palestine – the war in Iraq, the failed Arab Spring, an emboldened Iran and bloody regional conflicts, especially in Syria and Yemen, all have become matters of deep concern. In spite of all this, the elements of a successful campaign for Palestinian rights are present and, in many ways, stronger than they were 30 years ago.

What comes through clearly in polling on US public opinion is that there is a deep partisan divide on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with key demographic groups increasingly more supportive of Palestinian rights and antagonistic to hardline Israeli policies. In some ways, the Netanyahu-Trump “marriage” has also helped to fuel the partisan divide.

A Pew poll earlier this year found that support for Palestinians far surpassed support for Israel among self-described “progressive” and “liberal” voters. A recent Gallup poll shows that only 17pc of Democrats have a favourable view of the Israeli leader.

At the same time, our capacity is greater than ever with stronger and better organised groups in the Arab, Jewish, black and student communities ready to act for Palestinian rights.

Should Bernie Sanders run again for president, his leadership will help empower this coalition, as he did in 2016 when – for only the second time in history – we had a debate on Palestinian rights.

But even if Bernie chooses not to run, the movement is substantial enough and changes in the views of Democrats are significant enough to force the issue onto the table — and cause at least one candidate, if not more, to see this as an issue worth embracing.

All that is left is a commitment and focused effort to bring our energy and our movement directly into the political arena and to embrace a strategy to move the Palestinian issue forward in 2020. The strategy will not be the same as the one we used in 1988, but the conditions are there to ensure the debate can happen again in 2020. 

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