With BDS, Palestinians have got a winning formula

With BDS, Palestinians have got a winning formula
Comment: With all the efforts to fight it, outlaw it and shut it down, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement must be doing something right, writes Said Arikat.
5 min read
08 Jul, 2015
A key trade deal has been altered to help Israel fight the boycott movement [Getty]
After a highly charged debate in Congress - during which he was opposed by members of his own party - US President Barack Obama finally signed into law the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in a White House ceremony on June 29.

Obama's signature came after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) succeeded in having amendments added into the law, mandating official US trade representatives to pressure European and Asian counterparts against boycotting products produced in the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

A week earlier, on June 24 and 25, the Senate and the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly for the AIPAC-drafted amendment.

It requires US trade negotiators to "discourage politically motivated actions" by foreign countries and international organisations that aim to "penalise or otherwise limit" commercial relations with Israel or "persons doing business in Israel or in territories controlled by Israel".

The language of the amendment, to "penalise or otherwise limit" commercial relations with Israel or anyone doing business in Israel - "or in territories controlled by Israel", was stealthily introduced into the bill back in February by Ben Cardin, the Democratic senator from Maryland, alongside the Republicans' Senator Rob Portman of Illinois.

Both Cardin and Portman are known for their close ties to AIPAC, and are understood to receive massive financial and campaign contributions by virtue of their association with the group.

A more drastic measure had been approved by the House back in April - introduced by staunch AIPAC supporter Peter Roskam, the Republican congressman from Illinois, as an addendum to the customs bill. That one insisted on taking action against "foreign companies if they shun the settlements". At least 16 of the 28 member states of the European Union have criticised the settlements.

Unsurprisingly, the phrase "in Israel or in territories controlled by Israel" is identical to the language of an Israeli anti-boycott bill adopted by the Knesset in 2011 and upheld by Israel's High Court of Justice last April.

The law punishes Israelis who advocate either type of boycott, in a clear warning to Israel's Arab citizens and dissenters of any background.

Fighting sanctions

The day the huge TPP trade bill passed, Roskam said in a press release that the amendments "aim to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel by requiring US trade negotiators make rejection of BDS a principal trade objective in Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations with the European Union".

"This is nothing short of a historic win for the US-Israel relationship and a hammer blow to the BDS movement - a campaign solely dedicated to the delegitimisation and isolation of our ally, Israel." 

Roskam's sentiments were immediately echoed by the dozen or so main Israel lobby organisations scattered around Washington.

On Tuesday, June 30, the day after Obama signed the bill into law, his administration sought to distance itself from the suggestion that the United States was no longer opposed to the settlement activities or even, as some Likudnik enthusiasts in Washington began to spread around town, to no longer differentiate between "Israel proper" and the occupied West Bank.

State Department Spokesman John Kirby issued a statement that basically told Israel the United States was not about to defend it against boycotting the settlements.

Kirby opened with how the US had worked in the three decades since signing the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement - "our first such agreement with any country" - to grow trade and investment with and in Israel.

He went on to say how the US government had also strongly opposed boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions targeting Israel, and would continue to do so.

"However," said Kirby, "by conflating Israel and Israeli-controlled territories, a provision of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation runs counter to longstanding US policy towards the occupied territories, including with regard to settlement activity.

"Every US administration since 1967 - Democrat and Republican alike - has opposed Israeli settlement activity beyond the 1967 lines. This administration is no different. The US government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements and activity associated with them and, by extension, does not pursue policies or activities that would legitimise them.

"Efforts to change facts on the ground undermine the goal of a two-state solution to the conflict and only make it harder to negotiate a sustainable and equitable peace deal in good faith."

Kirby's statement promised that "we will also continue to uphold policies integral to preserving the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

Divestment threat

The same day Kirby made his statement, the United Church of Christ voted to divest its holdings from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories - sounding the alarm bells across Washington.

Not to be outdone, or forced into a position on BDS of Obama's choosing, Hillary Clinton sent a letter on July 2 to the well-known Israeli lobbyist Haim Saban, telling the billionaire how terrible BDS was.

The former secretary of state, former "first lady" and current Democratic front runner for the 2016 presidential elections, told her long-time friend and financier: "I am writing to express my alarm over the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions, or BDS, a global effort to isolate the State of Israel by ending commercial or academic exchanges."

Clinton promised Saban to "make countering BDS a priority", seeking his advice on how best such could be achieved.

She reminded Saban, who runs the newly founded pro-Israel lobby, the Israeli-American Council, in partnership with right-wing Israel zealot and Republican financier Sheldon Adelson, that "as you know, BDS seeks to punish Israel and dictate how the Israelis and Palestinians should resolve the core issues of their conflict. This is not the path to peace.

"I remain convinced that Israel's long-term security and future as a Jewish State depends on having two states for two peoples, but that outcome can only be achieved through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians," she added.

She concludes her letter by saying: "I am also very concerned by attempts to compare Israel to South African Apartheid."

So after a week with such intense and profound BDS presence in Washington's corridors of power, one is inclined to conclude that BDS is working.

Not only that, but as Clinton suggests in her letter to Saban, BDS is set to garner the spotlight in the upcoming presidential race. This is all the more reason for the Palestinians to focus their energies on such a winning formula.

Said Arikat is the Washington bureau chief for the Palestinian al-Quds newspaper.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.