September 23, 2019

From Cleveland to Philadelphia: Party politics, the mood and what’s in it for Israel?

The road from Cleveland to Philadelphia is long, and in my case involved a train station, a wait, a conversation. He had a guitar and a large bag and a worried expression. “Are you going to Philly?” “I am.” “To the convention?” “I am.” “Is this the place, is this the right ticket?” “It is.”

He is Hassan El-Tayyab. An “award-winning singer-songwriter, author, teacher and cultural activist currently residing in San Francisco.” Talking with him was easy: His new book just came out, and since my own book is coming out soon, and since I work as a book editor, we first chatted about books, second about his family being from Jordan, right next door to the country where I live, and third about Hillary Clinton.

On the train, I bought and downloaded his new book, “Composing Temple Sunrise: Overcoming Writer’s Block at Burning Man.” It is a story about his trip to a Burning Man event and how it changed his life. He is quite young to have already had one life and then changed it to something else. When his story began, he was “26, in good health, and had a college degree and friends who respected and cared about me.” And yet, he writes, up until his Burning Man experience, so much of his life “had been spent worrying about my own problems.” The grandiose event made his life “a part of something bigger than myself, but not as a cog in a machine.” 

Reading these words, you will not be surprised to discover that as we traveled to Philadelphia together, El-Tayyab was still mourning the untimely defeat of his political hero, Bernie Sanders, to the woman who officially became the Democratic presidential candidate this week. However, El-Tayyab seemed as determined to vote for Clinton as he is determined to keep disliking her: To him, she is the wrong candidate for a cycle of change. She does not represent change. Thus, he was not surprised to hear that the Monday morning polls were not promising. That the RealClearPolitics average was suddenly showing Donald Trump pulling ahead. 

But what choice does he have? “Fascism” — his term — is not an option. Trump is not an option. Staying home when Trump is on the ticket is not an option. On the morning of July 25, El-Tayyab said he would hold his nose as he votes for Clinton. Some of his friends — Bernie supporters, too — were slower to take in a new reality, and it turned out later that day that they needed comedian Sarah Silverman to shame them into understanding that a Bernie or bust approach is “ridiculous.” Say what you will about Sanders and his ideology, but a movement whose responsible adult is (the adorable) Sarah Silverman is, well, a little childish. 


I have been writing about American elections for 20 years. I have been traveling to witness crucial primary battles and take the temperature in battleground states and yawn during party conventions every cycle since 2000. This is the saddest cycle of elections. This is the cycle in which nobody is happy. Trump supporters know their candidate is a gamble. Clinton supporters admit that she is not their dream candidate. Sanders and Ted Cruz supporters are devastated. We could see Sanders supporters crying as he spoke late on the night of July 25. They were crying because they knew that they no longer had a choice. History will be made in this election with them as the disappointed spectators. History will be made in this election without cheer.

Americans aren’t cheering, and the rest of the world is watching warily. The result might still be a decent administration with decent policies, but as things look now, the uplifting of mood is probably on hold until the next cycle or the one after. 


Last week, in the early morning hours of July 21, I needed to send an article to the Friday edition of Maariv Daily, an Israeli newspaper I write for in Hebrew. It was morning in Cleveland but afternoon in Israel. And there was not much point in asking for more time, making more phone calls: The time difference makes the Israeli deadline impossible to accommodate. My concluding report from the GOP convention had to be written before the main event — Donald Trump’s speech. 

I had seen Trump in action more than once during the primary season. In March, I saw him walk into the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference Washington, D.C., and speak to a generally suspicious crowd, masterfully owning it — at least for a while. So I had to be careful: On the one hand, the GOP convention was quite miserable. On the other hand, it was all about one man, and that man had not yet made his appearance. 

So I was careful. But one sentence I was about to regret still made it into the article: Trump, I wrote, “ended the convention yesterday without particular reason to be satisfied.” I was obviously wrong on two counts. First, I did not take into account Trump’s ability not just to completely erase, with one speech, everything that had transpired before that speech. And second, I did not take into account Trump’s masterful ability to repress inconvenient truths. In fact, these two skills are connected: Trump first erases

any troubling datum from his own mind, and then he erases it from the minds of all those willing to listen to him.

So on the evening of July 21, I was listening and forgetting, much like everybody else, the Melania Trump plagiarism and the Cruz attack and the absent dignitaries and the torn-apart party and the disappointed delegates. I was listening to Trump and wondering, like everybody else, whether his powerful speech would bury his candidacy — or resurrect it. As the Democratic convention goers began to gather inPhiladelphia, polls were providing an answer. The pundits, the experts, the leaders, the intellectuals, the rabbis, everybody you know — or almost everybody — disapprove of Trump. And yet there are people out there, about half ofthe population, who say they will vote for him. It isprobably useful to try to understand who these peoplemight be. 


A  coffee shop in Youngstown, Ohio. One cashier, one barista, three people sipping and reluctantly talking about politics. They do it mostly because they are nice — because they don’t want to say no to a stranger who came all the way from faraway Tel Aviv and asks them for their views. “The way I see it,” one of them says, “all of them are corrupt.” His friend nods, then says, “but Trump is at least honest. He is a billionaire, so he proably had to do some stuff he was not proud to do — you know, you can’t be totally straight and make a fortune. But I think he really cares now. He is already rich, so he is not in it for the money. And he does not play this bulls— game of trying to be nice to everybody. He says what everybody else thinks, but he is the only one who has the guts to say it.”

It is now the first friend’s turn — the “they are all corrupt” man — to nod. He seems almost convinced. The third friend is still silent. What do you think? I ask him. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s confusing. People say all sorts of things about him being racist and all that. I don’t know what to think. I like the guy, but what if they are right?”


In the run-up to and during the conventions, I spoke with several people involved in drafting the portion of the party platforms dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As you may know by now, the GOP platform no longer includes an endorsement of the two-state solution (it also does not “reject” it, as some newspapers reported, but rather leaves it for Israel to decide). This is a change from previous elections cycles. The Democratic Party has retained its support for the two-state solution, but it also made a (much slighter) change in the language of the platform. It now supports a Palestinian state, not just because this is what’s right for Israel, but also emphasizes the need to guard the rights of the Palestinians.

Both platforms have little impact when it comes to bringing about peace. Leaders do not follow party platforms as they devise policies, and, with all due respect to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the United States is hardly capable of forcing the sides into a resolution that both sides reject. The U.S. did not succeed during the Clinton administration, nor during the Bush administration, nor during the Obama days, and it was not because of lack of interest or investment or creativity or ability or the right language in a party platform. As I wrote after the last effort to advance Israeli-Palestinian talks, by John Kerry, the failure was a result of the fact that the gap between the two sides is just too wide to overcome.

And yet, the political battle over the language has significance. Democratic and Republican leaders have argued time and again that the current state of Israeli-Palestinian affairs is unsustainable, and while the question remains open as to whether they were right or wrong, they were surely right to suspect that something was unsustainable. The facade of an American consensus over Israel-Palestine is no longer sustainable. The platforms end an era during which, with all of the small and large disagreements over the proper way to pursue peace, the goal of the two parties was essentially the same: peace and security for Israel through the establishment of a Palestinian state. A facade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was helpful in retaining a facade of American consensus over Israel. For good and bad, this is over now.

Israel is merely a bystander in this political fight. It did not ask for the changes, nor does it want them. For Israel, the status quo was not perfect — because it called for something that Israel does not currently believe is feasible — but considering the alternative, it was a reasonably acceptable pragmatic formulation.

The alternative is a polarization of the American worldview toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The alternative is two platforms that unnecessarily forced a debate over this issue. This is a price that Israel — and other countries — pay because of the polarization of American politics. It is a result of the fact that in this round of American elections, the traditional facade is out — and the facade of truth telling is in. Thus, the Bernie Sanders faction of the Democratic Party, pushed by dovish organizations and activists, was no longer willing to accept a platform that ignores the issue of Israeli settlements and occupation. Thus, the party of Donald Trump, which is ready to scrap the status quo on so many issues and to adopt isolationist-tilting ideas, was ready to depart from a formulation previous GOP conventions have been willing to adopt.

Should Israel be pleased with the result? The best outcome for Israel would have been no change in the platforms. The best option for Israel is for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to not be an issue that the parties highlight or fight over. Alas, in the existing political atmosphere, the best outcome is unavailable. And given that, the results of the process that has been taking place in recent weeks is not that bad for Israel. 

It is not bad in the event that Trump and his party win the election and ease the pressure on a reluctant Israel. It is not necessarily bad if Clinton wins the election. That is because, if she becomes president, it is important for Israel to not see a repeat of the Obama days, when the two-state solution was the starting point, and internal pressure was applied by Democratic groups to take a tougher position on Israel. If Clinton becomes president, it might be beneficial to remind Americans that the two-state solution is not a baseline from which the only possible adjustment is to the left.


Philadelphia: The action is around City Hall. That’s where the Bernie youth are raising flags, shouting into megaphones, pretending to still be in the game. I ask one of them, a 25-year-old named Jenna, about Clinton’s historic candidacy, the first woman to be a viable presidential candidate.

She responds with the bluntness typical of the Bernie crowd: “You are Jewish, aren’t you?” “Yes,” I respond with hesitation, but then realize she knows I write for the Jewish Journal, so nothing about her assumption is alarming or offensive.

“Aren’t you troubled by Hillary’s use of Bernie’s Jewish roots to hurt him?” she asks.

Well, she did not use it. And yes, the idea to use his Jewishness that was revealed in the emails leaked to the media is indeed troubling, but I return to the question I’d asked about Clinton being a woman.

“Oh, that,” she says. “I’m kind of tired of hearing about that. Of course, I want a woman to be president. Just not her.”

Who can it be then, if not Clinton? If you followed Michelle Obama’s speech, you might have one suggestion. She was moving; she was enchanting; she was powerful. She gave one of the best speeches of this season and most previous election seasons. A speech for the ages. She did Clinton a huge service by speaking so persuasively about her — but she also did her a disservice by exhibiting the power of charismatic leadership, doing what Clinton does not seem able to do. 

Sarah Silverman irritated those Democrats who refuse to accept reality — and refuse to move on to waging the larger battle. Michelle Obama touched their hearts. She, I believe, is the one who sealed the deal. More than all other speakers. More than even Sanders himself, whose main task, following Obama, was not to ruin an emotionally satisfying evening. 

I was looking for Jenna after Obama spoke, but it was impossible to locate one person in the crowd. I was looking to ask her whether she was now convinced. I’d be surprised if she wasn’t. 

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor.