Disagreement over Israel boycott blocks US congressional vote

A section of the bill that aims to weaken the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has generated controversy and exposed a rift in the American Jewish community over the issue.
Wednesday 16/01/2019
US Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) leaves after a caucus meeting at the US Capitol January 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP)
US Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) leaves after a caucus meeting at the US Capitol January 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The US Congress failed three times in one week to advance a measure that would punish Syria and strengthen US security ties with Jordan and Israel because the bill contains language that would hurt businesses that boycott Israel.

The US Senate on January 14 fell short of votes needed to advance the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act.” Similar votes failed January 8 and January 10.

The bill contains widely supported provisions, such as reauthorising an agreement that facilitates military sales to Jordan and imposing sanctions on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

However, a section of the bill that aims to weaken the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for actions against Israeli companies to try to force Israel to comply with international law regarding its settlement programme, generated controversy and exposed a rift in the American Jewish community.

The controversy intensified when Rashida Tlaib, a newly sworn-in Palestinian-American member of the House of Representatives, wrote on Twitter January 7 that BDS opponents “forgot what country they represent.” Tlaib added: “This is the US where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality.”

Tlaib’s comment was criticised by US Jews and Israel supporters, who said it revived an anti-Semitic notion that American Jews have a divided loyalty between the United States and Israel.

The BDS movement in the United States has gained momentum on university campuses and among liberals who are sympathetic to the Palestinians’ cause and free-speech advocates who say boycotts are protected speech and an American tradition. Other American-Jewish groups and pro-Israel conservatives strongly oppose BDS, calling it anti-Semitic and saying it harms the United States’ chief ally in the Middle East.

In the United States, 26 of the 50 states have enacted laws that bar state agencies from contracting with companies that boycott Israel or conducting any business with them including investing state funds in boycotting companies. As those laws have come under legal challenge and struck down by some courts, the US Congress has sought to strengthen the anti-BDS movement with a law that explicitly allows states to refuse to do business with companies that boycott Israel.

US Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, which has a large Jewish population, inserted anti-BDS language in his Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act and tried repeatedly to get the Senate to vote on it. Democrats opposed Rubio’s effort and blocked the bill from coming up for a vote. US President Donald Trump, a Republican, supports the bill and the anti-BDS language.

The reason for the Democrats’ opposition is disputed. Democratic leaders in the Senate said they would not vote on any bill until Congress and the White House end the partial shutdown of the federal government that began December 22 and has forced many agencies to close while 800,000 government workers are on furlough.

Some Democrats in Congress opposed laws that punish companies that boycott Israel, saying such laws infringe on free speech and condone Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

US Senators Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, and Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, opposed anti-BDS legislation last year, warning it would validate Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s controversial expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

“At a time when the Netanyahu government is pursuing policies clearly aimed at foreclosing the two-state solution, it is deeply disappointing that Congress would consider choosing to penalize criticism of those policies,” Feinstein and Sanders wrote in a letter. Both Feinstein and Sanders are Jewish.

Rubio said Democratic leaders were not being candid when they said they don’t want to consider his bill until the government is fully reopened.

“The shutdown is not the reason Senate Democrats don’t want to move to Middle East Security Bill,” Rubio wrote on Twitter. “A huge argument broke out at Senate Dem meeting last week over BDS. A significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS& Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.”

Although Democrats blocked a vote on Rubio’s bill, it could still be considered by the full body.