Congress Moves to Protect Israeli Settlements

Blog Post

On Wednesday, the Senate adopted an amendment to the Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (TPA) designed to defend Israel against the global “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement” (BDS). A similar amendment was adopted in the House of Representatives. Whatever one thinks of the bill’s intentions, the actual content of it is troubling enough that it must be opposed, whether or not one opposes the global BDS movement.

Let’s dispense with one point right away. There is no comparison between the sort of actions this bill is targeting and the Arab League boycott of Israel, from which the United States has been defending Israel through legislation since 1977. The Arab League boycott had one purpose and that was to destroy the Israeli economy. It sought no change in policy. What it was protesting was Israel’s very existence.

A similar accusation is often made today against the global BDS movement. Whether one believes that accusation valid or not, there is no justification for barring economic actions which clearly target Israeli policies that are, surely, problematic to say the least. Can we, as Americans, truly justify stigmatizing or even criminalizing a business’ or an individual’s decision not to do business with companies based in Israel’s settlements beyond the Green Line?

This is a distinction that both amendments act to erase. Several times in both bills, the language refers not only to Israel but also to “territories controlled by Israel.” The bills, therefore, erase the distinction between Israel and the settlements it has established in occupied territory – territory that, even according to Israeli law, is not part of Israel.

It is important to remember that Israel has never extended Israeli law or made any official claim to sovereignty to territory beyond the Green Line, except for their claims on East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, neither of which has been recognized internationally, including by the United States. So how can Congress justify treating the settlements as if they are part of Israel? And what are the implications of it doing so?

As cynical as it may sound, it seems that Congress needs no justification for this crude and short-sighted act beyond the urging of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which strongly supports these amendments. One might understand the desire to shield Israel from BDS, just as the U.S. shields Israel from so many other potential consequences of its nearly half-century old occupation. But to willfully include the settlements, as these bills do, serves no obvious purpose other than to maintain that occupation.

The precedent this sets, and the message it sends, is nothing short of disastrous. Indeed, what it really does is pave the way for a one-state future, with no alternatives. It is ironic that, after the shock and opprobrium that greeted Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign pledge that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, the United States Congress would take a step toward closing off the two state option, not with words, but with actual legislation.

That might sound like an overstatement. But consider what this legislation would mean.

True, most of the measures in this legislation deal with reporting, or Congress’ list of points of emphasis in trade negotiations. However, it sets a clear precedent that the settlements and Israel are a single unit. That can have grave implications down the road. For example, while the United States has routinely averted its gaze from the ways in which American aid to Israel helps sustain the occupation, the fact that at least technically, US weapons are not supposed to be used for this purpose and that US funds had to be kept within the Green Line matters. It is something to build on, to try to make a case with for increased stringency in monitoring Israel’s actions and, potentially, a lever to modify those actions.

More than that, the overwhelming majority of actions taken to try to convince Israel that there is an economic incentive for it to change its policies have been scrupulously targeted at the settlements. Two years ago, the European Union, which is the target of the anti-boycott legislation, issued guidelines based on existing EU law, prohibiting funding of any projects beyond Israel’s recognized borders. Several European companies and investment firms have stopped doing certain kinds of business with some of their Israeli counterparts either because the business supported the settlements or because the work involved would actually be in the West Bank. These are not wholesale boycotts of Israel, but are actions targeted specifically to the occupation and the settlements. Is that what Congress is trying to protect Israel from? If it is, that is a much more significant step against a two-state solution than any of Netanyahu’s campaign promises.

One can debate the merits of boycotts, but when a boycott is called due to the grievous policies of a government, it is a legitimate way for individuals, organizations and businesses to protest that policy. Congress should not be interfering with the choice of individuals and businesses as to how they might wish to use their dollars or euros to express their politics, as long as it is a political expression and not one, like the Arab League boycott, designed to bring all of Israel down because of its very existence.

What Congress is doing with this amendment is putting to paper the view that the West Bank is Israel. What does that imply?

First, it means that Congress is saying that Israel is an apartheid state. After all, in the West Bank there are millions of Palestinians who live under military law while the settlers live under civil law. Two peoples living under different laws administered by the same government is the textbook definition of apartheid. This is the very argument that truly anti-Israel forces use, and now Congress is making it for them.

Second, Congress is standing in clear and undeniable opposition to the vision, first articulated by none other than President George W. Bush over a decade ago, of two states living side by side in peace and harmony. After all, the entire premise of the two-state solution has always been that Israel is occupying territory that is not part of the sovereign state of Israel. This has been the view of not only the international community, but the High Court in Israel, and every Israeli government from 1967 until now.

Thus, Israel would be ending its occupation and de facto allowing a Palestinian state to come into existence. But if this is all one sovereign unit, as the new legislation implies, then we are talking about dividing an existing sovereign state when we mention a two-state solution. That has never been the argument for two states, and it is a much more difficult one to credibly make.

As JJ Goldberg correctly describes it in the Forward, “Proponents (of the global BDS movement) are divided on whether or not they seek to eliminate the independent existence of the state of Israel.” Congress, in a very bi-partisan fashion, is siding with the most anti-Israel elements of the BDS movement who also see the West Bank, Israel and Gaza as a single state, under Israeli rule and therefore an apartheid state.

Congress is also siding with the most radical elements of the settler movement, who see the West Bank and Israel as all part of one, holistic Greater Israel. Many of those settlers do not recognize the authority of the Israeli government, and frequently clash with the government and security forces.

Those are Congress’ fellow travelers in this sort of view, true opponents of the State of Israel. It could not be clearer: support for this legislation is about as far from being pro-Israel as one can get.