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Using “Anti-BDS” Laws To Protect Israeli Settlements

In the wake of the collapse of the last round of Israeli-Palestinian talks last April, it’s become widely accepted that the continuing growth of Israeli settlements is a key obstacle to an agreement. This has created difficulties for those inclined to support the Israeli government’s ability to do whatever it wants. One way to make it easier to defend the settlements and the occupation that sustains them is to obscure the difference between them and Israel proper. As I wrote last month, a method that lobbyists like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have been employing lately to accomplish that is to target the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS).

Several recent pieces of legislation demonstrate how this is accomplished. In Illinois, a bill prohibiting Illinois from contracting with businesses that are boycotting Israel passed unanimously in both the State Legislature and Senate. The language of the bill specifically includes “territories controlled by the State of Israel” – that is, territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 war, which no country in the world, including the U.S., recognizes as part of Israel.

In Congress, amendments to the bills that would give the President the power to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal without public scrutiny (called “fast track”) require the President to make combatting any boycotts of Israel a principle trade objective and would require the President to report to Congress on any businesses that are participating in such boycotts. These amendments also specifically include “territories controlled by Israel.”

In both cases, the legislation does little if anything to protect Israel’s legitimacy. Rather, they extend existing American protection to Israel’s settlements, treating them as if they were a part of Israel for the first time in American history.

It is important to recall that US law already protects Israel against boycotts started by foreign governments. The Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Ribicoff Amendment to the Tax Reform Act of 1976 were enacted to protect Israel from the Arab League boycott against it. The Illinois law extends this protection in a small way, to encompass any boycotts against Israel, whether initiated by governments or civil society. The amendments in Congress, by contrast, change nothing with regard to boycotts of the internationally recognized State of Israel.

The real effect of those amendments and the major effect of the Illinois law as well, actually has nothing to do with any boycotts of Israel, whether by Arab states or activists. The upshot of all of these measures is that, for the first time, the United States is treating the settlements as if they were part of Israel. At no time has the United States ever implied any recognition of Israeli sovereignty over any territory it occupied in 1967. Even Israel’s annexations of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem have never been recognized by the United States.

Promulgating bills purported to be opposing BDS is a clever way to disguise what is, in reality, an effort to affect a major shift in American policy toward the settlements. Admittedly, it is a slower way to change that policy, and one must point out that the Illinois law clearly does have some, albeit small, influence on potential BDS activities. There can be no doubt, however, that when the dust settles and politicians look back on what they did here, the one and perhaps only effect that will stand out will be setting a precedent for treating the settlements as a part of Israel.

Here, it is instructive to examine a post by Eugene Kontorovich at the Volokh Conspiracy celebrating these new laws. Kontorovich, who is one of a microscopic number of international law experts who defend the legality of Israel’s settlement program, wastes no time in capitalizing on the dual nature of the bills. He immediately blurs the very crucial distinction between European economic actions directed entirely at Israel’s settlements, and some civil society BDS actions that take aim at Israel more generally.

Kontorovich derides European concerns about the economic and legal risks of doing business with the settlements, calling them legally groundless. He does not expand on this point; perhaps a sign that he knows it is easily assailable. In fact, there are serious issues for firms that are considering doing business with or in the settlements.

The overwhelming opinion of both international law scholars is that Israel’s settlements are illegal and violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids an occupying power from transferring its own citizens into occupied territory. As a result, the European Union and a number of European countries have passed laws that exclude settlement products from favorable import laws that Israel is entitled to as an associate of the EU or has worked out in trade agreements.

Europe has never really enforced those laws, but this could be changing, and that is what has Kontorovich and his ilk concerned. A recent trade deal between the EU and Israel became controversial due to provisions that barred any dealings with the settlements. The EU is also considering enforcing its laws about labelling products that come from the settlements, and thus distinguishing between them and Israeli products.

Crucially, Kontorovich describes these measures, and European warnings to businesses about them, as actions and warnings against “Israeli companies,” and this is again part of the agenda of blurring the distinction between Israel and the settlements. Kontorovich then moves into a general attack on the global BDS movement.

By melding his arguments against European measures and those of the BDS movement, Kontorovich lumps all economic action together, without distinguishing between actions directed at Israel and those directed at the occupation. This can hardly be seen as accidental; virtually every major move by businesses, governments, churches or any other entity that could have even the slightest economic effect on Israel has been scrupulously directed solely at Israel’s settlements and its ongoing occupation. That holds whether those actions have included any involvement of the global BDS movement or not.

Indeed, Kontorovich hardly stands alone in this. Boycotts or divestment proposals directed solely at the settlements and the occupation are routinely called “anti-Israel” and described, wholly inaccurately, as being directed against Israel.

Kontorovich also employs the disingenuous comparison of the BDS movement’s actions to the Arab League boycott of Israel. A group of governments, however, took that action, and as such, it is appropriate for another government to act to counter it. Economic movements from civil society, by contrast, are one of the few non-violent paths that groups of citizens have to affect policy. It is well established as protected speech under the United States Constitution and cannot be compared to the actions of foreign governments. Kontorovich surely knows this, but chooses, unsurprisingly, not to address it.

That protection of civil society boycott must hold, whether or not the boycott is popular. The global BDS movement is certainly a flashpoint, and clearly, parts of it are distinctly anti-Zionist, often to an extreme, and reject the very concept of a two-state solution. While such attitudes are not universal in that movement, it is certainly fair to say that for many in the pro-Israel community, those views characterize the movement as a whole.

That, however, should not mean that our government should act against a boycott movement. Kontorovich is essentially correct in one of his statements: “the message of the BDS movement…is fundamentally rejected by the vast majority of Americans.” If that is the case, however, that argues AGAINST such legislation, not for it. To legislate against a well-established aspect of free speech should require an extraordinary threat. Yet Israel’s popularity in the United States certainly guarantees, at least for the immediate future, that Israeli products and services will continue to sell in the American market.

It is worth asking, however, how much impact it would have if, someday, the United States also chose to differentiate between settlement products and actual Israeli ones. Aside from the friendly trade deals that settlement products would not qualify for, might people be less inclined to buy products from settlements, which are much less popular than Israel, if they could tell the difference between them and Israeli ones?

Perhaps that is what really concerns Kontorovich, as well as AIPAC, which has been pushing this legislation. The BDS movement has had very little impact, to date, on Israel’s economy. Just to cite one example, one of the biggest victories they were involved in, the decision by the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA) to divest from several companies they viewed as helping to support the occupation, exclusively targeted settlements. Moreover, PCUSA specifically stated that this was done based on its own initiative, and not as a part of the BDS movement.

Kontorovich’s arguments, and AIPAC’s legislation, raise a very fundamental question about restricting free speech. Is the United States willing to restrict free speech, albeit speech that is not very popular, when that speech is directed at another, allied country when the speech has clearly posed no material threat to that country? Is our standard for dangerous speech that low?

It also raises a key question related to American policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict. That question is whether the United States regards the settlements as part of Israel. Do we, in fact, agree with the most radical anti-Zionists and the most radical settlers, both of whom make no distinction between the settlements and the actual state of Israel?

More to the point, are we willing to stigmatize, penalize and perhaps someday even outlaw initiatives by many civil society groups, including many that are profoundly pro-Israel, that seek to end Israel’s occupation, reverse the settlement program and finally reach a two-state agreement?

Ultimately, Kontorovich and AIPAC are working with their arguments and legislation against those things. By hiding protection of settlements in language that seems to be defending Israel, they are moving that agenda forward. It’s important that this disingenuousness is exposed and people understand what they are really being asked to support.