Wednesday, June 24, 2015

US Congress passes rare law targeting boycotts of Israel

White House tells JPost: Policy on boycotts, and on occupation, "remain unchanged."

WASHINGTON – Four decades have passed since Congress last agreed on a law pushing back against boycotts of Israel worldwide. That streak was broken by the Senate Wednesday, at a moment perhaps prescient, as European capitals consider new measures to highlight and punish Israel’s continued “occupation” of the West Bank.

The vehicle chosen, as one congressman told The Jerusalem Post, comes around too infrequently for lawmakers to have passed up the opportunity.

He was referring to the fast-track authority required by President Barack Obama to swiftly negotiate a trade deal with the European Union utilizing Trade Promotion Authority, which, in turn, grants Congress an exceptional role and visibility into the process.

TPA, which passed through the Senate and landed on the president’s desk, includes roughly 150 trade negotiating objectives – requirements of the president, as mandated by Congress, to raise specific US priorities in its negotiations.

One of those objectives is to push back against efforts within the EU to sponsor the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

“Something this significant only comes around when TPA comes around,” Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Illinois) said in an interview at his office in the Rayburn House Office Building.

“They now have to bring it to their attention.”

The process began with a December 2013 op-ed in Politico Magazine written by Michael Oren, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, which challenged Congress to respond to the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israel – by no means the first protest of its kind, but an early sign of what was to come from similar organizations based in Europe.

A letter of support circulated around Capitol Hill, signatures were collected, and a bill was ultimately passed reinforcing Congress’s commitment to academic freedom. But the concern lay in the tactic. What if measures taken by ASA were used by other organizations against Israel as a form of economic warfare?

Several congressmen, including Roskam, made note that the first free trade agreement signed by the US was with Israel. They sought a legislative solution with teeth: a bill that would establish any future trade pact with foreign nations boycotting Israel as being in direct contravention of the existing US-Israel Free Trade Agreement.

Drafting HR 825, then known as the US-Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act, took several months. A bipartisan group of congressmen worked with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on its language.

The purpose of that bill, according to one aide familiar with its drafting, was “to discourage potential trade partners from participating in or promoting politically motivated acts of BDS against Israel, and to seek the elimination of boycotts and barriers to trade where they exist.”

Only when Congress learned of the Obama administration’s trade negotiations with Europe did Roskam, Rep. Juan Vargas (D-California), and senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) decide to piggyback on the president’s effort – and on the accompanying legislation required – to ensure the passage of their effort.

The goal was to enshrine “a principal negotiating objective that reinforces our opposition to official actions that boycott, penalize, or otherwise limit commercial relations with the State of Israel,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) said when introducing the provision as an amendment to TPA.

Supporters of the amendment faced skeptics across the aisle from Republicans, Democrats, some Jewish groups and the White House itself.

Congressional Republicans and administration officials were primarily concerned with strategic implications the law might have on the overall effort. Would including an anti-BDS provision compromise the negotiations themselves? Would Europe ask for something in return?

“We had to overcome arguments coming from a trade purist point of view, and trade purists see any sort of friction against trade as something adverse,” Roskam said.

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