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Failure of Nerve: Why Barbara Lee Doesn’t Speak for Me on TPP and Palestine

Rep. Barbara Lee proudly styles herself as a “renegade for peace and justice.” At times she lives up to that self-description. But when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, she always seems to lose her courage.

Consider, for example, her role at the recent meeting of the 15-member committee drafting of the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform. Rep. Lee was one of four members appointed by the Democratic National Committee; six others were selected by Hillary Clinton and five by Bernie Sanders.

The committee met on June 24-25 to review a draft of the platform. To Lee’s credit (and a testament to her political savvy, considering that Sanders outpolled Clinton in her district in the June 7 primary), she voted with his team on several attempts to push the party in a more progressive direction: for a clear commitment to a $15 per hour minimum wage indexed to inflation, for single-payer “Medicare for All” and for a fracking moratorium and other climate-change proposals by environmental leader Bill McKibben.

Unfortunately, she was the sole non-Sanders appointee to support these amendments; the other DNC representatives joined Clinton’s choices to vote them down.

On two important issues, though, Lee lined up with the establishment Democrats. First, she was part of a 10-5 majority that rejected language strongly opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the corporate-friendly trade and investment pact championed by President Barack Obama.

The issue of Israel and Palestine was last on the agenda, and — no doubt by design — it didn’t come up until after midnight. The Sanders camp’s amendment on this issue was anything but radical — and by no stretch of the imagination anti-Israel. In fact, it preserved language in the draft about that country’s supposed commitment to “democracy, equality, tolerance and pluralism” — values it has never applied to the Palestinians under its control. Likewise, the amendment retained a pledge to help Israel retain its “qualitative military edge” and to “oppose any effort to delegitimize it.”

The amendment, which Sanders himself helped draft, was simply a modest attempt to bring the platform more in line with his campaign vow to “treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.” It would have called for an “end to occupation and illegal settlements” — goals that have been explicit objectives of U.S. government policy for decades — and for “an international effort to rebuild Gaza” where some 1.8 million people are penned into an area the United Nations warns could be uninhabitable by 2020. The amendment also would have removed the draft’s denunciation of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement — the non-violent campaign supported by thousands of American Christians, Jews, Muslims and others (including many East Bay activists), to put economic pressure on Israel to adhere to international law.

In short, it’s hard to see how a person with Lee’s professed values could have objected to that amendment. And yet she joined with her Democratic-establishment colleagues to vote it down 10-5.

The battle isn’t over, though: The Sanders camp has vowed to continue fighting for progressive changes to the platform all the way to the convention in Philadelphia. If you would like Lee to stand up against the TPP and for justice for the Palestinians, tell her — call her local office at 510-763-0370.

One of Lee’s constituents, novelist Michael Chabon (who happens to be Jewish), said this on his return from a recent trip to the occupied West Bank: “Once you see for yourself, it is pretty obvious, I think, to any human being with a heart and a mind, it is pretty clear what to feel about it. It is the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life.”

We know Barbara Lee has a heart and a mind. Maybe after the convention, she should make her own visit to Palestine. If she did, I expect she would play a different role next time the issue comes up.

This column originally appeared in the East Bay Times.

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