Posted on August 26, 1996 in Washington Watch

Both Democrats and Republicans have issued their 1996 party platforms. Platforms are not government policy; they are political documents that reflect the relative strengths of the political forces that compete for influence within each party. The party platforms are crafted to appease interest groups and appeal to important blocs of voters.

While not policy, by reflecting the power that groups can bring to bear on a party, platforms are useful indicators of what forces a candidate for the presidency will face as his administration attempts to lay out government policy.

The process of creating a platform begins with the party leadership developing a draft document. This initial draft is the product of internal discussion and compromise as the writers attempt to lay out positions that will satisfy both the party’s candidate and key constituency groups.

The draft is then debated and, if necessary, amended by a platform committee. Committee members are selected from each state, usually by loyalists of the presidential candidate who won the primary in that state. Some additional committee members are appointed by the Executive Committee of the national party.

In order to change the draft platform, a proposed amendment must receive one quarter of the votes of the committee for consideration. It then must be debated and passed by a majority of the entire committee.

Since delegates are pledged to be loyal to their candidate, it is extremely difficult to modify the draft. Exceptions, of course, do occur, especially when internal group loyalty on an issue outranks loyalty to the candidate, or when the party primary has resulted in several candidates winning different states. This can produce a divided platform committee.

Since Bill Clinton was unopposed in the 1996 Democratic primary and Bob Dole was largely in control of the overwhelming majority of Republican delegates, this year’s platform drafts went largely unaltered. But on the Republican side, powerful anti-abortion forces, more loyal to their cause than to their candidate, were strong enough to deal a blow to Dole’s effort to prevent language that moderated the Republican party’s strong anti-abortion platform section.

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It is fascinating to review the evolution of both party’s Middle East platform language since 1968. In that year, following the 1967 War both parties issued nearly identical language expressing concern about the potential for new conflict in the Middle East and the danger that this would pose to U.S. regional interests.
From 1972 until 1988, the influence of pro-Israel forces in both parties became clear. Over time language in support of Israel evolved, adding new commitments in each new platform. Once again, there was virtual unanimity in both parties’ expressions of support for Israel as a centerpiece of U.S. policy. Both parties also routinely made anti-PLO references and declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

In fact, from 1972 until 1984 the Democratic party even called for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

But 1988 marked a dramatic change in the Democratic party platform process. That year Jesse Jackson won a sufficient number of delegates to insure a debate on Middle East and other platform issues. Since Arab Americans were a big component in Jackson’s coalition, we were able to raise three Middle East related platform planks. In an effort to stop the Jackson forces, the party offered a short platform that they hoped would discourage debate. The Arab Americans, however, were successful in forcing the platform negotiating team to accept our planks on Lebanon and U.S.-Gulf security interests.

While unable to win acceptance of the plank on Palestinian rights, our coalition of Arab Americans, African Americans, and progressive American Jews was able to force the first ever national debate at a convention on the Palestinian question.
In 1992, Arab Americans had no such strength in the party deliberations, but the Middle East plank still required a compromise between factions in the American Jewish community. The result was a more modest statement than that issued in 1984.

A review of the 1996 Democratic and Republican parties’ platform language on the Middle East reveals still further differences in the way the two parties speak about the issue as reflective of differences in their constituent bases.
American Jews are playing a more prominent role in Republican party debates than previously, and in the Republican Party they are countered by Arab Americans or more moderate voices from within their own community.
Long considered a Democratic constituency, American Jews are increasingly becoming a bi-partisan constituency. This is especially true in New York City where one-third of all voters are Jewish. There, very conservative Orthodox Jews have been registering as Republicans and supporting Republicans for state and local office.

Their conservative philosophy and alliance with Likud party politics in Israel has made these Orthodox Jews natural partners with other powerful forces within the national Republican Party. Neo-conservative cold warriors, who were a key group in former President Reagan’s foreign policy team, and pro-Israel right-wing Christian fundamentalists have had a major role in shaping Republican party policy toward the Middle East.

As a result, this combination of forces has produced an increasingly strident pro-Israel bias (despite the Bush-Baker years in the White House) in Republican party platforms – and the 1996 platform is no exception.

The 1996 Republican Platform
While the 1996 Democratic platform contains a note that “normal U.S. relations with Syria depend on its ending support for terrorism,” the Republicans list Syria together with Libya, Iraq, and Iran as “rogue states that threaten regional and international peace.”

The platform is filled with profuse praise of Israel calling it “our one democratic ally in the with whom we share moral bonds and common strategic interests.” The document then notes:

”...Israel’s most demonstrated strategic importance to the U.S. as our most reliable and capable ally in this part of the world is more critical than ever. That is why Israel’s security is central to U.S. interests in the region. That is why Republican Administrations initiated efforts with Israel to pre-position military equipment, to conduct joint contingency planning and joint military exercises. ...That is why we look toward the greater integration of Israel into out regional defense planning and wish to explore ways to enhance our strategic cooperation.”

The platform goes on to define the rest of the peace process in terms of the security it provides for Israel and the U.S., and states that “In that context, we support Israel’s right to make its own decisions regarding security boundaries.” It then criticizes “the Clinton Administration’s attempts to interfere in Israel’s democratic process.”

On the matter of Jerusalem, the platform praises “the Republican Congress for enacting legislation to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.” It further pledges that “A Republican administration will ensure that the U.S. Embassy is moved to Jerusalem by May 1999.”

The platform continues by praising President Mubarak of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan for having made peace with Israel, but makes no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement whatsoever.

The 1996 Democratic Platform
The Democrats faced two pressures in drafting this year’s party platform. They are holding the White House and have a responsibility for maintaining leadership in the peace process. At the same time they do not want Republicans to use Middle East issues to pull Jewish voters away from their party, yet feel a responsibility to reach out to both different voices within the American Jewish community and also Arab Americans with whom the Administration has had a continuing dialogue.

The result of these deliberations produced a short, more moderate but still pro-Israel statement.

The fifteen line section on the Middle East begins by praising President Clinton for overseeing “a remarkable record of achievement toward peace and security in the Middle East – the Israeli-Palestinian accords; the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan; new regional security and investment summits; Israel’s increased acceptance throughout the Middle East and the world….”

It then pledges to support “efforts by the Clinton-Gore Administration to achieve a comprehensive and lasting peace among Israel and all its neighbors, including Lebanon and Syria.”

The platform reaffirms the Democratic party’s commitment to “America’s long-standing special relationship with Israel, based on shared values, a mutual commitment to democracy and a strategic alliance that benefits both nations. The United States should continue to help Israel maintain its qualitative edge.”

And in a controversial move the platform simply repeats a line from its 1992 platform stating that “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.” This was done undoubtedly to appease the dominant pro-Israel forces in the party and limit the ability of Republicans to make Jerusalem an issue in the 1996 presidential campaign as both parties compete for Jewish votes.

But, in order to show respect for Arab and Muslim fears and the concerns of the Arab American community, the White House simultaneously issued a statement of clarification noting that this was “the position of the party but not the position of the president.” The President’s position, the statement goes on to say, is that:

“Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive and volatile issues in the peace process. I remain convinced that it is unwise for the United States to take actions that could be interpreted as prejudicing matters, such as Jerusalem, which Israel and the Palestinians themselves have formally agreed to discuss only in the context of direct, permanent status negotiations.”

Arab American Democrats were a part of the discussion in framing this year’s platform. While failing to change the language on Jerusalem, they were instrumental in getting the White House to issue its clarification. They were also able to help change the initial draft to include references to the Lebanese and Syrian tracks of the peace process and in adding language at the end of the Middle East section stating the commitment of the Administration to “working with our Arab partners for peace to build a brighter, more secure and prosperous future for all the people in the Middle East. To that end we seek to further enhance our ties with states and peoples in the Arab and Islamic world committed to non-aggression and willing to take risks for peace.”

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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