Posted on September 12, 2008 in Washington Watch

Both parties have completed their conventions and issued their platforms. As often noted, these documents are more political statements than sound policy formulations. As such, once written, they are ignored and are never good predictors of presidential behavior. (Recall, for example, that for decades now, Republican Party platforms have called for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.)

The platforms are, however, frustrating reminders of U.S. domestic political realities. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way both parties deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. A comparison of the approaches taken by the two parties can be illuminating.

For both Republicans and Democrats, the starting point is Israel. Republicans begin by defining Israel as a “vigorous democracy unique in the Middle East.” They then “reaffirm America’s commitment to Israel’s security and …ensure that Israel retains a qualitative edge in military technology over any potential adversaries.” They continue, noting that Israel “must have secure, defensible borders [to] … support its right to exist as a Jewish state able to defend itself against homicide bombings, rocket and mortar fire, and other attacks against its people.”

For their part, the Democrats affirm much the same. “Our starting point must always be our special relationship with Israel, grounded in shared interests and shared values, and a clear, strong fundamental commitment to the security of Israel, our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy.” They go on to note that that commitment “requires ensuring that Israel retains a qualitative edge for its national security and its right to self defense.” Going beyond the Republican rhetoric, the Democrats pledge “implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding that pledges $30 billion in assistance to Israel over the next decade.”

Both parties now agree on a two state solution, with the Republicans pledging their “support for the vision of two democratic states living in peace and security: Israel with Jerusalem as its capital, and Palestine.” Democrats define their goal as “a lasting settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a democratic, viable Palestinian state dedicated to living in peace and security side by side with the Jewish state of Israel.”

What is required for this to occur, Republicans say, “the Palestinian people must support leaders who reject terror, embrace the institutions and ethos of democracy, and respect the rule of law.” They add a call for “Arab governments throughout the region to help advance that goal.” While agreeing that the U.S. and its “Quartet partners should continue to isolate Hamas until it renounces terrorism,” the Democrats see the role of “sustained American leadership and the patient efforts and personal commitment of the President of the United States” as central to the success of the peace process.

With regard to final status issues, the Republicans say that these must be “negotiated between the parties themselves without the imposition of an artificial timetable and without the demand that Israel deal with entities that continue to pledge her destruction.” They vaguely state that the peace process should “include a mutual commitment to resolve all issues through negotiation,” becoming even more oblique with regard to the resolution of the refugee issue, saying that it must be “just, fair and realistic” and “settled only on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect today’s realities as well as tomorrow’s hopes.”

The Democrats, in dealing with final status issues, become more specific and also somewhat conflicted, stating that the issue of the refugees can only be resolved through final status negotiations, but then propose “an international compensation mechanism” that would “resolve the issue of the refugees by allowing them to settle [in a Palestinian state] rather than Israel.”

On another difficult final status issue, i.e., Jerusalem, the Republicans unequivocally state: “We support Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel” and call for “moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.” The Democrats, for their part, are both definitive and equivocal, noting that “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths.”

To make some sense of all this, it is important to enter the arcane world of “platformese” in order to discern both the differences and the points of convergence in the approaches taken by the two parties.

The points of agreement are clear. Israel’s powerful role in U.S. domestic politics is affirmed by both parties. So, too, is their agreement on a “two state solution.” While Republicans adhere to the Bush Administration’s insistence on placing the burden on Palestinians to reform before they can achieve statehood, the Democrats put more emphasis on the role of the President and American leadership as prerequisites to achieving peace. Both parties display a commitment to a negotiated settlement, but both also submit to political pressures by preordaining the outcome of those negotiations, with Democrats defining away the resolution of the refugee question and Republicans doing the same with Jerusalem.

While differing only marginally in their respective approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict, when it come to dealing with energy to the divergent interests of the two parties becomes clearer.

Both pledge, in their respective platforms, to end what they call America’s dependence on “foreign oil.” Republicans, for their part, decry “our current dependence on foreign fossil fuels, which threaten both our national security and our economy, and could force drastic changes in the way we live.” According to the GOP platform, the resultant transfer of Americans’ wealth to OPEC “helps underwrite terrorist operations and creates little incentive for repressive regimes accept democracy.” The Democrats, less provocatively, make somewhat the same point, noting that, “For the sake of our security…we will break our addiction to foreign oil.”

The “agreement,” however, ends there, with Democrats focused more on producing environmentally clean, “green” energy, increasing fuel efficiency and cracking down on speculators, while Republicans, though acknowledging the role of renewable and nuclear energy, give greater emphasis to “growing our energy supply through increased domestic production.”

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