APN's Lara Friedman on The Hill - Cotton's "Made in Israel" bill: latest salvo in campaign to change US settlements policy

"Cotton’s bill aimed at settlements policy"

This week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced S. 2474, purportedly in order to ensure “fair” treatment by the United States of Israel and Israeli products. In truth, this bill has nothing to do with Israel or products made in Israel. It is about one thing only: reversing nearly five decades of unbroken U.S. policy opposing settlements built by Israel in territories it occupied in the 1967 war.  

Cotton’s bill is just the latest salvo in a broader campaign, taking place both in Washington and in state capitals, to exploit concerns about BDS (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel), in order to legitimize settlements.

Stage One of this campaign saw House and Senate bills defining Israel as Israel-plus-the-settlements for the purpose of trade negotiations. Stage Two saw provisions inserted into two pieces of trade legislation similarly conflating settlements and Israel. One of these bills has already been signed into law, provoking the State Department to clarify that this conflation is not U.S. policy; the other awaits a final vote in the Senate before heading to the president’s desk, where a signing statement rejecting the conflation as unconstitutional seems likely. Stage Three saw letters (here, here, here) and resolutions in both the House and Senate slamming the European Union for its policy of differentiating between Israel and settlements.  

Now, in Stage Four, we have Cotton’s legislation, which seeks to overturn longstanding U.S. rules regarding labeling of West Bank products - rules pre-dating the Obama Administration by more than a decade and that were never opposed by the government of Israel or AIPAC. Cotton’s bill would change the rules to permit goods produced not in Israel but in settlements to be misleadingly and inaccurately labeled as “made in Israel.” 

What’s the problem with this conflation? 

First, it flies in the face of longstanding, principled U.S. policy. Since 1967, every president, regardless of party, has opposed settlements, and every Congress, regardless of which party was in control, has supported this position. Indeed, never before (until now) has there been any serious effort in Congress to legislate U.S. support for settlements.  

Second, it conflicts with reality. Under Israeli law, the West Bank and the settlements in it are not considered part of Israel. Under international law and Israeli court decisions the West Bank is deemed as being held in a state of “belligerent military occupation.”

Third, it makes common cause with hardliners and zealots on both sides of this conflict, including in the BDS movement. They, like some today in Congress, refuse to distinguish between Israel and the occupied territories. They advocate, instead, for the zero-sum goal of one nation, Greater Israel or Palestine, extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.  

Fourth, it threatens the two-state solution. The settlement enterprise has already eroded both the credibility and the viability of the two-state outcome. Moves by Congress to legitimize settlements will only encourage further settlement construction, undermining the chances of ever resolving this conflict.  

Fifth, it undermines Israel’s own security interests. With the 50th anniversary of the 1967 War and the occupation fast approaching, the situation on the ground is growing more volatile. Israeli security authorities increasingly acknowledge the urgency of re-establishing a political horizon for a solution that can end the conflict. Such a solution will be impossible if the 1967 line separating between Israel and the West Bank has been erased.  

Sixth, it puts the U.S. on a collision course with its closest allies – not for the sake of Israel, but for the sake of settlements. These same allies have not adopted anything even resembling BDS against Israel (the EU remains Israel’s largest trading partner), but have run out of patience with Israeli leaders who talk about supporting two states but keep building settlements, in contradiction to a genuine commitment to achieving a negotiated two-state solution.  

And finally, it is brazenly hypocritical. Congress has emphatically opposed what it perceives as efforts by the Palestinians to impose a solution on Israel or pre-determine elements of a final agreement, whether through actions at the United Nations, or the International Criminal Court, or by pursuing recognition from nations around the world. However, efforts in Congress to legitimize settlements seek to do precisely that: impose specific elements of a solution, outside of negotiations. 

Members of Congress who are genuinely committed to Israel’s security, its democracy, and its character as a Jewish state are right to be alarmed about growing grassroots support for BDS. At the same time, they should be outraged over efforts, coming from both inside and outside of Congress, to exploit their concerns about BDS in order to promote an ideological, pro-settlements agenda that is anathema to the interests of both the U.S. and Israel. 

This article appeared first on February 2, 2016 on The Hill blog.