Legislative Round-Up - February 2, 2018

Produced by the Foundation for Middle East Peace in cooperation with Americans for Peace Now, where the Legislative Round-Up was conceived

  1. Bills & Resolutions
  2. Hearings
  3. On the Record

Shameless plug: Recently there has been a lot of debate over the Pew Poll published 1/23/18 showing a decline in support for Israel among Democrats. Various insightful explanations have been given, highlighting weakness of the poll, the role of partisan sentiment related to Trump, and impact of Israeli policies. Missing from all of these analyses, however, is acknowledgement of a key trend in the U.S. that is contributing, inevitably, to this result. This is the trend where “pro-Israel” is increasingly defined to mean supporting and defending brazenely illiberal policies within the United States. When ostensibly progressive politicians and groups choose illiberalism-in-defense-of-Israel – for example, when supporting unconstitutional legislation that seeks to gag free speech of U.S. citizens in order to insulate Israel from criticism and pressure (ongoing efforts in Congress are discussed in Section 1, below) – they are contributing to the diminution of support for Israel among Americans who are repulsed by the notion that support for Israel demands the sacrifice of the values and rights that are at the core of what it means to be a progressive. I wrote about this phenomenon in an op-ed this week in the Forward.

1. Bills & Resolutions

(ISRAEL FREE SPEECH GAG BILLS) S. 720 & HR 1697: On January 26, 2018, the UN Human Rights Council published a report on the “Database of all business enterprises involved in the activities detailed in paragraph 96 of the report of the independent international fact-finding mission to investigate the implications of the Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.” Notably, the database itself was not released and no date was given for its future release; according to the report the UNHCR needs more time and resources to complete it. Regardless, the Israeli government and many of its US defenders, including in Congress, have inaccurately/misleadingly condemned the entire exercise of talking about businesses working in settlements, as well as the as-yet-non-existent database, as “anti-Israel” (despite it focusing only on settlements) and a “blacklist” (despite the fact that there is not enforcement or sanctions mechanism attached to the database) by. On the Hill, the database (along with Europe’s policy of differentiating between Israel and settlements – also inaccurately/misleadingly labeled a boycott of Israel) is the pretext for the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720 & HR 1697) – bills that exploit hysteria over boycotts of Israel (and conflate them with boycotts of settlements), in order to criminalize the free speech of American citizens.

Backers of the bills insist that the legislation is merely a natural and non-controversial extension of longstanding Israel anti-boycott law and that it targets only businesses and thus would have no impact on the free speech of individuals. Those using such arguments are misinformed, deluded, or lying. To understand what the law actually would do – based not on AIPAC press releases, but on the text of the bill – see this analysis. And to see for yourself exactly what U.S. law would look like if the Israel Anti-Boycott Act passes, see this “redline” of the law (where I have gone through and amended the law according to the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, highlighting all changes in the text). The ACLU has also weighed in strongly on the bill, labeling it unconstitutional (ACLU explainer here; ACLU WaPo op-ed here; ACLU blog post here; ACLU letter to House here; ACLU letter to Senate here).

The lead advocates for this legislation, Senators Portman (R-OR) and Cardin (D-MD) issued a press release 2/1 denouncing the UNHRC report (Rubio, R-FL, did as well).

Watch these bills closely – reported efforts are heating up on the Hill to amend the legislation – cosmetically, not substantively – in order to gain broader support, and it is nearly certain that the bills will be a lobbying priority during the upcoming AIPAC policy conference (March 4-6).

Likewise, it is probable that a related piece of Israel/free speech gag legislation, the “Combatting BDS Act” (S. 170 and HR 2856) will be another focus of lobbying during AIPAC; in December 2016, AIPAC touted progress on these bills in its publication, “Pro-Israel Accomplishments of the 114th Congress. These bills seek to give legitimacy and cover to bills passed in U.S. states to gag free speech related to Israel. In this context, it is worth noting that on January 30, a Federal judge handed down the first ruling on one of the state gag bills. His ruling granted an injunction against the gag law enacted by the state of Kansas. The ruling is detailed, comprehensive, unambiguous, and devastating – underscoring the brazen unconstitutionality of the bill and the hollowness of the arguments used to defend it. That ruling should be read in full by those concerned with the issue of free speech and gag legislation linked to Israel and settlements (for those who don’t have time to do so, key excerpts are available here).

For a compendium of resources related to free speech and the unconstitutionality of various federal and state laws/bills seeking to gag free speech related to Israel, see here.

(GAGGING FREE SPEECH ON CAMPUSES) S. 2342: A robust lobbying effort is underway seeking to use S. 2343 – pending legislation in the Senate that would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to create an “innovation zone initiative” – in order to further amend that Act to clamp down on Middle East studies programs that hardline American Jewish groups view as anti-Israel. For more background, see this report in the Washington Examiner. The effort is spearheaded by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law (press release on the effort is here; letter sent to Senate committee leaders is here), which is still helmed by Kenneth Marcus – who is awaiting confirmation to a top post in the Trump Administration’s Department of Education (where he will have authority over precisely this sort of thing – you can watch his 12/5/17 confirmation hearing here). A who’s-who of groups taking right-wing positions on Israel has signed on to the effort: Academic Council for Israel, AMCHA Initiative, American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (AAJLJ), American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), American Jewish Committee (AJC), B’nai B’rith International, Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), IAC for Action, The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (LDB), Middle East Forum, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), Simon Wiesenthal Center, StandWithUs (SWU), and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).

As background, it should be recalled that Kenneth Marcus has been perhaps the single most prominent and vocal advocate for legislation aimed at gagging campus free speech by defining most criticism and activism against Israel to be “anti-Semitism.” For more on this, see:

Debra Nussbaum Cohen in Haaretz: Trump's Pick for Top Civil Rights Post Under Fire Over Efforts to Crack Down on BDS

Zaid Jilani in the Intercept: Anti-BDS Campaigner Nominated for Top Civil Rights Job at Department of Education

Stephen Zunes in HuffPo: Trump’s Dangerous Appointment to Key Civil Rights Position: Kenneth Marcus
Jesse Rubin in MondoWeiss: Anti-BDS crusader Kenneth Marcus named to top civil rights post in Trump administration

Or better yet, listen to Kenneth Marcus in his own words:

(MORE IRAN SANCTIONS) S. 2365: Introduced 1/30 by Rubio (R-FL), Menendez (D-FL), Nelson (D-FL) and Corker (R-TX), “A bill to impose additional sanctions with respect to serious human rights abuses by the Government of Iran, and for other purposes,” aka, “the Iran Human Rights and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act.” Referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. This is the Senate version of HR 4744, introduced 1/9/18. Rubio press release is here. Bill text is here.

(MORE IRAN SANCTIONS) S. 2353: Introduced 1/29 by Cotton (R-AR) and Hatch (R-UT), the “Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act cosponsors.” Referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. This is the Senate version of HR 1638, passed by the House on 12/13/17. Cotton press release is here; Hatch press release is here.


(PROTECT INTL FINANCIAL SYSTEM FROM IRAN) Royce letter to Mnuchin: On 1/25, Royce (R-CA) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin urging that, when the Financial Action Task Force meets in early February, he “use the influence of the United States to ensure not only that Iran remains designated as a ‘high-risk and non-cooperative jurisdiction’ but also that the Task Force reimposes ‘counter-measures’ designed to protect the international financial system from the regime’s money laundering and terrorist financing.” Press release is here.

2. Hearings

February 6, 2018: The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa will hold a hearing entitled, “Syria: Which Way Forward?” Scheduled witnesses are: Former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford (Middle East Institute); Faysal Itani (Atlantic Council); Charles Lister (Middle East Institute); and Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development Mara Karlin (SAIS).

January 25, 2018: The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing entitled, “Global Challenges and U.S. National Security Strategy.” Witnesses Henry Kissinger (statement), George Shultz (no written statement), and Richard Armitage (statement – lots of Iran). Video of the hearing is here. AND…congrats SASC, on convening yet another all-white, all-male panel!


3. On the Record

Feinstein (D-CA) 1/29: Prime Minister Netanyahu is Wrong About Iran Nuclear Agreement

Ryan (R-WI) 1/27: Ryan Delegation Completes Middle East Visit Focused on Terrorism and Iranian Aggression

Buchanan (R-FL) 1/26: Buchanan Returns From Counter-Terrorism Mission in Mid-East

Cardin (D-MD) 1/25: “I and other Members of this body are engaged in an attempt to prevent the President from withdrawing without reason from another major international agreement--the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. The President has jeopardized the agreement by not certifying Iran's compliance and without his producing any evidence that Iran is in violation of the agreement. He has now made a number of aggressive demands of Congress and of our European allies, once again demonstrating that he is no negotiator.”

Ryan (R-WI) 1/25: In the UAE, Speaker Ryan Delivers Remarks on the Threats from ISIS and Iran

Ryan (R-WI) 1/25: Speaker Ryan CODEL Travels to United Arab Emirates

Cassidy (R-LA) 1/25: Cassidy: New Orleans City Council’s Anti-Israel Resolution Should Have Never Seen the Light of Day

Ryan (R-WI) 1/24: Ryan CODEL Travels to Saudi Arabia, Talks Focus on Regional Threats

Poe (R-TX) 1/22: Floor statement on Iran & North Korea (“We need to double down on our efforts to amplify the voices of the Iranian and North Korean people who yearn to be free. Both of these regimes are illegitimate. They must be held accountable. Their victims must be heard. And that's just the way it is.”)

Poe (R-TX) 1/22: Applauding sanction on the IRGC, pushing passage of HR 4328, the Iran Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act

Lamborn (R-CO), Zeldin (R-NJ), Lance (R-NJ), and Roskam (R-IL) 1/19: U.S. Support for Guatemala's Embassy Move to Jerusalem

Cassidy (R-LA) 1/19: After Cassidy’s Urging, New Orleans City Council to Reconsider Anti-Israel BDS Resolution

Gosar (R-AZ) 1/19: Using Iranian protests to make the case for the MEK (excerpt: “even the Iranian Supreme Leader noted that the leading opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), has popular support within Iran. It follows that the MEK should be treated as a legitimate opposition party with grass roots appeal. The MEK has pointed out the excesses of the current government and its efforts at accountability ring true with many Iranians. It is my hope that Iran can embrace a more responsible world view, a more humane approach to its own people, and allow dissidents and protestors the freedom to air their grievances.”)