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Despite pressure from progressives, no major changes in Democratic platform on Israel

By Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Centrists on the platform-writing committee of the Democratic National Committee overrode progressives who wanted the platform to condemn Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

The 2020 platform only alludes to the occupation, preserves Israel’s defense aid and rejects the movement to boycott Israel. But it does warn against annexation, the move that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering for portions of the West Bank.

The platform has not yet been released publicly, but the Jewish Telegraphic Agency obtained notes from someone who was read the platform’s Israel portion over the phone. JTA’s source asked to remain anonymous to maintain the confidentiality of the official who provided the information. The language, approved by the drafting committee, must be affirmed by a larger platform committee, but generally there have been few changes in language once the drafting committee gives an okay.

Leading party progressives, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have called for cuts in defense assistance if Israel goes ahead with annexation. And there was also a concerted effort, led by among others J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, to have the platform mention the occupation, in part because Netanyahu appears closer than ever to annexing parts of the West Bank.

But just as they did in 2016, centrists overruled progressives and only alluded to the occupation, warning both Israelis and Palestinians against taking unilateral steps including “annexation” and saying Israel should not expand settlements.

“We’re very concerned that the draft apparently makes no reference to Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory,” J Street said in a statement. “Acknowledging and opposing the daily indignities and injustices that Palestinians face under occupation is an indispensable step on the path to promoting and achieving a viable, lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that can satisfy the fundamental needs and aspirations of both peoples.”

There were nods to calls for the platform to more equitably treat the Palestinians than it has in the past; previous platforms have at times barely mentioned the Palestinians. The new platform recognizes the legitimate aspirations of both peoples.

Additionally, the $3.8 billion Israel gets annually in defense assistance remains sacrosanct in the platform. “Democrats believe a strong secure and democratic Israel is vital to the interests of the United States,” the platform says. “Our commitment to Israel’s security, it’s qualitative military edge, and right to defend itself” as well as the 2016 Obama administration memorandum of understanding establishing the $3.8 billion figure “is ironclad.”

The platform also robustly rejects BDS, or the movement to boycott Israel because of the occupation, and United Nations measures targeting Israel.

“We oppose any effort to delegitimize Israel at the United Nations, or through the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement which singularly targets Israel,” the platform says, while also recognizing free speech rights, a nod to Democrats who oppose BDS but also oppose state laws criminalizing BDS.

Platforms are typically released at party conventions, and the Democratic Party’s was originally scheduled for this week. It was delayed until next month because of the coronavirus pandemic. While a committee drafts the platform, the presidential nominee, this year expected to be Joe Biden, typically plays a significant role.

That means the United Nations language in particular likely distances Biden from one of the Obama administration’s final acts, allowing through a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Israel’s West Bank occupation. Plus, Biden has said that the one area where he would resist Sanders’ influence was foreign policy, and he appears to have done that when it comes to Israel.

It’s not clear that Sanders, who ran in the presidential primaries and was the most serious threat to Biden’s nomination, pushed for Israel changes. When Sanders conceded to Biden, the two men had an online meeting and Sanders pressed hard for progressive changes in six policy areas, none having to do with foreign policy.

The two-state solution remains paramount in the platform, which also pledges to reestablish ties with the Palestinians, including reopening the PLO office in Washington.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America welcomed the language. “JDCA is proud to have provided input to the Democratic Party platform drafting committee,” said its director, Halie Soifer. “We’re very glad to see that that platform will continue Democrats’ long-standing supporter of Israel, its security assistance in accordance with the memorandum of understanding and a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.”

Meet Aaron Keyak, the Orthodox political wunderkind who’s helping Biden turn out the Jewish vote

By Dan Pine

(J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) – Aaron Keyak started out in Democratic Party politics as a kid, stuffing envelopes for campaigns in his native San Francisco. He clearly found his niche early. This week Keyak, 35, was named Jewish engagement director for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

His mission: devise strategies to reach Jewish American voters and convince them that Biden is the best choice in November. It’s a task he says will consume him 24/7. Then, Keyak, an observant Jew, quickly corrected himself.

“Make that 24/6,” he said, accounting for Shabbat.

The issues of Jewish concern range from the U.S.-Israel relationship to ensuring Iran never acquires nuclear weapons to the increase in antisemitic violence in the United States. And then there are broader issues such as health care, the economy, racial justice and COVID-19.

“One of the great things about the Jewish community is the wide range of issues we care about,” Keyak said. “It keeps me busy.”

Given the Trump administration’s many policies seen as favorable to Israel, such as relocating the American Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, Keyak said the Biden campaign cannot take Jewish votes for granted, even though the Jewish vote is traditionally overwhelmingly Democratic.

“We have to campaign like we’re a few points down,” he said, even as national poll averages give Biden a 10-point advantage over Trump. “We have to know we’re doing everything we can to build a broad coalition in the Jewish community and the general public to show that Donald Trump isn’t America.”

Aaron Keyak stands with Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden at a Jewish Leaders reception at the Naval Observatory Residence in Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, 2015. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Keyak said he doesn’t buy Trump’s professed philo-Semitism, and hasn’t ever since the infamous 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, after which the president said there were good people “on both sides.”

“That the most powerful person on Earth would say there are fine people on both sides, and to embolden that hatred, made me feel unsafe in my own country,” Keyak said. “I’m sure he inspired these antisemites to feel encouraged. He exposed how fundamentally dangerous he was and remains.”

Keyak contrasts Trump with Biden, stressing what he called “the fundamental sense of decency [Biden] emanates. There are Trump supporters in the Jewish community, and they will have a well-funded effort we will have to combat.”

While Biden has maintained close ties to the Jewish community throughout his decades in politics, he has faced criticism for the Obama administration’s chilly relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and what some saw as too much daylight between the two allies.

Keyak counters by pointing out that the Obama administration passed a $38 billion aid package to Israel and offered unqualified support during outbreaks of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, including providing technical assistance with the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

“In Joe Biden we have a stalwart supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Keyak affirmed. “When it came to Israel’s security, there was no stronger supporter that Joe Biden, and he speaks out against antisemitism clearly and without hesitation.”

Keyak seems to have been born for the job he has with the campaign. His grandfather chaired the state’s Democratic Party, and he remembers his family routinely discussing politics around the Shabbat dinner table. His mother, Vicki, co-founded the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club of San Francisco, and his late father, Jeffrey, served as president of Congregation Adath Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco, and sat on the board of the Friends of the Jewish Community Library.

Keyak landed his first real campaign job as a precinct captain in San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown’s 1999 victorious reelection campaign.

After attending Washington University in St. Louis, he served on the staff of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (NY-D), and had a stint as interim director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Also, he has been a contributing opinion writer for the Hill, the Times of Israel, Huffington Post and other outlets.

In 2014, he co-founded Bluelight Strategies, a premier Washington, D.C., public relations firm serving mostly Jewish and progressive institutions, and for which he serves as managing partner (he has taken a leave of absence to serve the Biden campaign).

Keyak, his wife, Avigail Goldgraber, and three-year-old daughter, Shira, live in the West End neighborhood of Washington, D.C. 

Biden is currently leading the incumbent president in national polls and in most battleground states – a fact which Keyak attributes to what he calls Biden’s “positive message.”

“During the Obama years, I got to know Joe Biden,” he said. “I’ve seen him in big public events, in smaller events, celebrating Rosh Hashanah at the vice president’s residence. It’s so obvious the genuine connection and understanding he has of the Jewish community. You can tell he gets it in his kishkes.”

Ilhan Omar endorsed by Nancy Pelosi; challenger attracts support from pro-Israel givers

By Ron Kampeas

(JTA) – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lent her considerable weight to the reelection bid of Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has faced allegations of invoking antisemitism. Meanwhile, an opponent in the Democrat primary who has attracted the support of pro-Israel givers nationwide has outraised Omar by millions of dollars.

“Ilhan is a valued and important Member of our Caucus,” Pelosi said Tuesday, July 14, in a statement. “In her first term, Ilhan has already established herself as a leader on a host of issues – from child nutrition to housing to U.S.-Africa relations.”

Pelosi was among Democrats in 2019 who joined in criticizing Omar for a number of statements about pro-Israel influence that were seen as antisemitic. Omar apologized for some but not all of the statements.

Antone Melton-Meaux, one of four challengers to Omar in the Aug. 11 primary, has fundraised nationally, including $487,000 from NORPAC and Pro-Israel America PAC. He has outraised Omar between April and June with $3.2 million to her $471,000.

Omar is one of two Democrats in the House who back the boycott Israel movement.

Bernie Sanders endorses Ilhan Omar for re-election

(JNS) Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has endorsed Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for re-election in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, announced the senator on Wednesday, July 15.

“@IlhanMN is a woman of incredible strength. We need her leadership in Congress. I’m pleased to endorse her campaign for reelection,” captioned the former Democratic presidential candidate, who was endorsed by Omar, in a Twitter post that includes a video of Sanders announcing his endorsement for Omar.

In the video, Sanders touts Omar as “one of the leaders in the Congress in fighting for economic and social and racial and environmental justice,” while claiming that Omar “has been subjected to more vile and racist attacks than any other member of the Congress” and praising her for having “responded with incredible dignity and pride that should make the people of her state and her district extraordinarily proud of her.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Source: Screenshot)

“We need Ilhan’s leadership in the Congress,” he continued. “We need her voice speaking out for justice.”

Omar has perpetuated antisemitic tropes on Twitter and introduced a resolution in Congress that promotes boycotts of Israel, likening them to boycotts of Nazi Germany. In February 2019, a month after being sworn in, Omar accused AIPAC of paying members of Congress to back Israel, saying it was “all about the Benjamins.” The following month, she pointed fingers at her “Jewish colleagues” for attacking her Tlaib for labeling their criticisms as anti-Israel because of the Muslim faith of the two congresswomen, in addition to slamming her critics regarding “the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

This led to the passing of a House resolution condemning antisemitism and other forms of hatred that did not call out Omar by name.

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