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Disappointment (and a Little Hope) in First Foreign Policy Test of the New Congress

The new bill endorses state government efforts to punish socially conscious businesses that choose to boycott illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

The “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019,” endorses state government efforts to punish socially conscious businesses that choose to boycott illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. (Photo: Claudia Gabriela Marques Vieira)

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill—now headed to the House—which supports the continued presence of U.S. military forces in war zones in the greater Middle East.

The “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019,” which passed on a 77 to 23 vote, also increases unconditional taxpayer-funded arms transfers to Israel, strengthens military ties with the autocratic Kingdom of Jordan and endorses state government efforts to punish socially conscious businesses that choose to boycott illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Besides receiving near-unanimous support from Senate Republicans, a slight majority of Democrats also backed the contentious bill, introduced by Republican Senator Marco Rubio as the very first bill (S.1) placed before the Senate this session.

Yet, in a surprising development with possible future political implications, seven out of the eight Democratic Senators running or considering running for President voted no.

In a rebuke to arms control analysts who have long argued that the Middle East has been overly militarized, Congress is insisting there are not enough armaments in the region and the United States needs to send even more. In reauthorizing the U.S.-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act and pledging more than $33 billion in additional arms and weapons systems to Israel, the bill has sent a clear message of bipartisan support for continuing the arms race in a violent and unstable region.

S.1 also rejects calls by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations that U.S. suspend arms transfers to Israel and other countries that have used U.S. equipment and munitions to commit war crimes.

Investigations by the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others have documented Israeli violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in its assaults on the besieged Gaza Strip as well as its policies in the West Bank and elsewhere.

Ironically, this authorization of increased unconditional arms transfers to Israel was perhaps the least controversial part of the legislation, with several Democratic Senators who voted no on the bill going out of their way to reaffirm their support for the segments of the bill mandating further military aid to these governments.

S.1’s de facto recognition of Israeli sovereignty over territories seized by military force runs counter to the U.N. Charter and other basic tenets of international law. Having three-quarters of the U.S. Senate effectively endorse the right of conquest is yet another reminder that President Donald Trump is not alone in his disregard for long-standing international legal standards.

The bill calls on Trump to suspend plans for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan pending a strategic policy review with military leaders and consultation with U.S. allies in the region. It is noteworthy that such an assertion of Congressional authority did not occur in regard to the 2016 deployment of U.S. troops in Syria as the Constitution and War Powers Act requires, but only in regard to their withdrawal, which is well within the authority of the President as commander-in-chief.

This comes despite polls showing a sizable majority of Americans, particularly Democrats, oppose ongoing deployments of U.S. troops in war zones and support increased Congressional oversight to restrict such interventions.

In passing S.1, the U.S. Senate went on record in support of efforts by states to punish those who boycott Israel, Israeli settlements, or the Israeli occupation. At least twenty-six states have enacted such legislation.

Particularly controversial was language in the bill re-defining Israel to include “Israeli-controlled territories,” thereby putting the Senate on record in support of punishing companies which honor calls by the United Nations and European Union for businesses to not deal with illegal Israeli settlements. This clause led moderate pro-Israel groups—such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now, both of which oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign—to come out against the legislation.

The use of boycotts has long been recognized as a First Amendment right.

The use of boycotts has long been recognized as a First Amendment right. Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union came out strongly against S.1. When the majority of Democrats joined the Republicans in supporting the bill anyway, the ACLU rebuked, “Today the Senate chose politics over the Constitution and trampled on the First Amendment rights of all Americans.”

The lone Republican Senator to vote against the measure, libertarian-leaning Rand Paul, noted, “our country was founded upon the concept and in the midst of a great boycott,” adding, “There is likely nothing more American than to protest, to dissent, and to boycott.”

Laws that punish anyone supporting BDS campaigns are already having real-live consequences for people across the country.

A well-respected high school teacher in Kansas who supported her Mennonite congregation’s call for boycotting companies supporting the Israeli occupation was denied a contract she had initially been offered to lead a pedagogical workshop for other teachers.

The University of Houston, a public institution, has refused to pay honoraria or reimburse expenses for at least one guest speaker who had boycotted Israel. A lawyer in Arizona who had been providing legal support for indigent inmates was denied a renewal of his state contract because of his support for a boycott. In Arkansas, newspapers which accept advertising from state agencies must sign a no-boycott pledge. There have even been efforts in some states to deny funding for professors to attend conferences of academic organizations which have endorsed BDS..

Some of these laws have already been thrown out on constitutional grounds; challenges to others are pending. Regardless, a majority of Democratic Senators—including Minority leader Chuck Schumer and six out of the remaining nine Democrats in party leadership—so strongly support the Israeli occupation and settlements that they would seek to suppress the free speech rights of socially conscious companies and contractors.

Yet, significantly, with the exception of Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, all eight Democratic Senators who have announced or who are expected to announce their candidacy for President voted against the bill. Not only did Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeff Merkley vote against the bill, but also traditional pro-Israel hardliners including Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Sherrod Brown.

It is probably no coincidence that so many with presidential ambitions joined the minority of Democratic Senators who voted no. Indeed, it may be a sign that the long-standing assumption that Democrats can take rightwing stances in regard to Israel and Palestine without suffering political consequences is no longer the case.

The big test will come in the House of Representatives, where the legislation—possibly in the form of separate bills—will face the chamber’s new Democratic majority.

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Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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