APN's Lara Friedman in Lobelog: The Stealth Campaign in Congress to Support Israeli Settlements

Since the beginning of this year, an unprecedented but little-noticed campaign has been waged in Congress—backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and others—in support of Israeli settlements. At the core of this campaign is an effort to legislate a change in U.S. policy, which since 1967 has remained firmly opposed to settlements, under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

Backers of the campaign, both in Congress and among outside groups like AIPAC, are promoting numerous pieces of legislation that redefine “Israel” to mean “Israel-plus-the-settlements” and make supporting settlements an integral and mandatory part of American support for Israel, as a matter of policy and law. They pass off their efforts as an entirely non-controversial matter of countering boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) against Israel in general, countering BDS policies adopted by the EU and some European countries, in particular.

Exploiting the fog-of-panic over BDS, they paint their efforts in black-and-white, “with-Israel-or-against-Israel” terms. And, whether out of fear, ignorance, or actual support for the campaign’s pro-settlements agenda, most members of Congress have swallowed this explanation without protest. They have done so despite the fact that not a single European country has adopted anything even resembling BDS policies against (Europe remains Israel’s largest trading partner today), and despite the fact that even a cursory examination of the legislation and policies in question reveals that they have nothing to do with, and would have no impact on, BDS targeting Israel, but rather would only result in U.S. support for settlements.   

Thus far, the campaign—both in its brazenly dishonest framing and for its highly-controversial goal—has gone largely unnoticed and unchallenged. A handful of experts (including this author) have worked tirelessly to educate Congress and the public to what is really going on; a few talented journalists have tried to tell the whole story (for example, here and here). In the one case where the campaign managed to pass pro-settlements language into law, the Obama administration made clear that U.S. policy on settlements would not change. Regrettably, this clarification had no noticeable impact in Congress.  

As documented in detail below, backers of this campaign clearly believe they have found a winning strategy, one that involves hijacking more and more elements of U.S. foreign policy and working to tie them, in law, to U.S. support for settlements. The energy behind this campaign shows no sign of abating, and there are no indications that Congress is waking up to the dangers this campaign holds—not only for the chances of achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, but for an ever-widening range of U.S. policies and interests.

The 2015 “Settlements=Israel” Campaign: A Year in Review

Winter 2015: Initial Legislation Introduced: On February 10, Representatives Roskam (R-IL) and Vargas (D-CA) introduced HR 825. On March 2, Senators Cardin (D-MD) and Portman (R-OH) introduced their companion bill, S. 619 (Cardin announced he would be introducing S. 619 on March 1, at a plenary session at the AIPAC policy conference). Shortly thereafter, both bills were posted on AIPAC’s website as part of AIPAC’s legislative agenda (and remain there as of this writing). Notably, on September 9, 2014 Buzzfeed reported that AIPAC was directly involved in drafting the legislation. The ostensible purpose of both bills is to protect Israel from BDS policies adopted in other countries, particularly in Europe. In reality, these bills would define Israel, for the purposes of U.S. trade policies, as including the settlements, and make it U.S. policy to push back against policies that distinguish between settlements and Israel. The legislation also appears to lay the groundwork for barring the U.S. private sector from working with foreign companies that, on their own or consistent with laws to which they are subject, distinguish between Israel and settlements, and possibly even for extraterritorial sanctions. Notably, on its website AIPAC initially characterized the bill as concerned with the treatment of “Israel and her territories.” After attention was drawn to this unusual wording (unusual because it implies that AIPAC views the occupied territories as part of Israel), AIPAC removed the reference and its advocacy page now refers only to Israel.

Spring-Summer 2015: Pro-Settlement provisions attached to major trade bills.  In April 2015, provisions similar to those in HR 825 and S. 619 were folded into two pieces of major trade legislation: the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill, which eventually became HR 2146; and the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (aka, the Customs Bill), which eventually became HR 644. During House and Senate Committee consideration of the provisions (Senate is here, starting at 09:01; House is here, starting at 18:00), members repeated concerns about BDS and “economic warfare” against Israel, ignoring the fact that the provisions would have no impact on BDS and would serve only to defend and promote settlements. President Obama signed HR 2146, including the pro-settlements provision, into law on June 29. The pro-settlements provision was of sufficient concern to the Obama administration that on June 30 it issued a statement clarifying that the bill’s conflation of Israel and settlement was not U.S. policy. This clarification may be intended to lay the groundwork for a veto or signing statement of future legislation containing similar provisions.

Fall 2015: Warning the EU over settlements policy. On November 9, Senators Cruz (R-TX) and Gillibrand (D-NY), along with 34 other senators, sent a letter to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, slamming the EU for its impending policy of requiring that labels on products coming from Israeli settlements accurately reflect their point of origin, which means they cannot say “made in Israel.” On November 10, Representatives Lamborn (R-CO) and Weber (R-TX), along with 34 of their House colleagues, sent a similar letter to Mogherini. Both letters treat the EU policy as a form of BDS against Israel. The Senate letter specifically references the pro-settlements provisions passed into law as part of the TPA legislation as justification for its attack on the EU’s policy, underscoring the fact that defending settlements was, from the start, the intent behind those provisions.

Fall 2015: Urging USTR action against the EU over settlements policy. On November 12, following the EU’s publication of its new settlement labeling policy, Representatives Roskam (R-IL) and Vargas (D-CA), and Senators  Portman (R-OH) and Cardin (D-MD)—the foursome behind the original pro-settlement bills, HR 825 and S. 619—jointly sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, opposing the EU labeling policy and urging U.S. intervention.  The letter references the pro-settlement provisions in the TPA bill as justification for its demands, underscoring (again) that defending settlements was, from the start, the intent behind those provisions. The letter also makes explicit the members’ goal of erasing the 1967 lines (aka, the Green Line) by introducing a new term of art for the occupied territories: “post-1967 Israel.” This term (like the one used and then deleted by AIPAC earlier in the year, “Israel and her territories”) clearly discloses a political agenda of legitimizing Israeli settlements.

Fall 2015: Holding Ex-Im Bank funding hostage to support for settlements. In late November, Senators Portman (R-OH) and Cardin (D-MD)—who are playing a consistent and energetic role in leading the pro-settlements campaign to add pro-settlements language—began an effort to link funding for the Export-Import Bank (which is currently shuttered for lack of funding) to support for settlements. Their effort, which once again being framed as pro-Israel and anti-BDS, is reportedly strongly supported by Wyden (D-OR) and Senate Minority Leader Reid (D-NV). In a letter lobbying for inclusion of the provision, Portman and Cardin specifically cite the pro-settlements provision in the TPA bill as precedent and point to the EU’s recent settlement products labeling policy as a concrete example of BDS against Israel that Congress must fight.


This article appeared first on 12/1/2015 on Lobelog.com.