Just hours after winning praise from the Jewish community for signing a major trade bill that requires all U.S. trading partners to reject boycotts of Israeli products, the Obama administration announced it would overlook countries that boycott products from Israeli settlements.
The law requires U.S. negotiators to raise objections to Israel boycotts in their dealings and says that “discouraging” Israel boycotts would become one of the “principal negotiating objectives” of the negotiators. It also explicitly includes “persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories” as illegitimate targets for boycotts.
In revealing the administration’s decision to ignore part of the anti-BDS legislation, State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement: “The U.S. government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements and activity associated with them and, by extension, does not pursue policies or activities that would legitimize them.”
He insisted that although the U.S. strongly opposes boycotts, divestment campaigns and sanctions [BDS] against Israel, the trade bill’s provision that conflates “Israel and `Israel-controlled territories’ … runs counter to longstanding U.S. policy towards the occupied territories, including with regard to settlement activity. Every U.S. administration since 1967 – Democrat and Republican alike – has opposed Israeli settlement activity beyond the 1967 lines. This Administration is no different.”
Some Jewish groups who had praised the White House and the bill now criticized it.
Aaron Troodler, a spokesman for National Council of Young Israel, said his organization was “elated when the president signed the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] bill expeditiously.” But by later renouncing part of the anti-BDS section, Troodler said “the administration has seemingly done an about-face and chosen to ignore provisions of the law that are essential to protecting the State of Israel.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, expressed a similar view in which he stressed “saying in a statement: “does not conflict with U.S. policy on settlements.”
“It is about U.S. trade policy with Europe protecting Israel from being punished economically for political decisions that will be addressed and resolved in a resolution of the conflict negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.
Some liberal pro-Israel groups, including J Street and Americans for Peace Now had objected to the anti-BDS element of the bill, arguing that it would for the first time confer U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. And APN welcomed the State Department clarification about the boycotts of settlement products, saying it believed the amendment would have changed “U.S. policy on this issue by stealth.”
In a statement, Lara Friedman, APN’s director of policy and government relations, argued that the lawmakers were seeking to exploit concerns about BDS that her group shares into “cover for legislation the true purpose and effect of which are to protect and promote settlements.”
She went on to say that this was just another “example of this ongoing campaign to legislate U.S. policy to support and protect settlements, under the guise of fighting BDS targeting Israel. … These unprecedented efforts to change U.S. policy to support and promote settlements are manifestly irresponsible, misguided, and counterproductive.”
The two senators who spearheaded the anti-BDS amendments, Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ben Cardin (D-MD), noted in a statement that the amendments were adopted unanimously by the Senate Finance Committee and the Ways and Means Committee, and that the legislation “does nothing to prejudge the final borders of a negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Boycotts against Israel, in any form, are wrong and antithetical to U.S. efforts toward peace.”