Congress moves to pressure Europe against BDS steps

Amendments in Senate and House to bill on historic US-EU trade deal reject actions targeting Israel

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

The Senate side of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons/File)
The Senate side of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons/File)

WASHINGTON — The powerful Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday unanimously adopted language targeting European anti-Israel activities as part of negotiations over a historic trade deal with the EU.

The amendment to the authorization for negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will add the discouragement of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) actions as a principal objective for US envoys in the talks with Europe.

The committee voted in a roll-call vote to approve the amendment stating that the “principal negotiating objectives of the United States regarding commercial partnerships” include to “discourage actions by potential trading partners that directly or indirectly prejudice or otherwise discourage commercial activity solely between the United States and Israel” as well as “discourage politically motivated actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel and to seek the elimination of politically motivated non-tariff barriers on Israeli goods, services, or other commerce imposed on the State of Israel.” The US would also “seek the elimination of state-sponsored unsanctioned foreign boycotts against Israel or compliance with the Arab League Boycott of Israel by prospective trading partners.”

The amendment will come to a floor vote when the Senate votes on the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the underlying bill. The administration is pushing hard for the TPA, which is expected to come to a vote as early as next week and has bipartisan support.

The amendment only applies to the TTIP negotiations with Europe, and not the companion Trans-Pacific Partnership talks — a response, sponsors say, to a tide of BDS-related initiatives in the European countries with which the US hopes to negotiate a historic agreement.

“Unfortunately, some of our European allies are engaged in (BDS),” one of the amendment’s two original sponsors in the senate, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), told colleagues before the late Wednesday vote. “Banks from from Sweden, Denmark and the largest pension fund in the Netherlands have divested from israel’s financial institutions. Denmark has actually threatened sanctions against Israel unless the Israeli government takes actions with regard to Gaza. There was a threat in the European Union to boycott meat and dairy products from certain areas of Israel depending how those products are labeled.”

US Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) (Photo credit: YouTube screen capture)
US Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) (Photo credit: YouTube screen capture)

In order for the free-trade deal with the EU to be brought to fruition, Congress must pass legislation enabling the president to negotiate such a deal. Such authorization comes with a series of major objectives for negotiations — and the Senate vote makes it likely that rejection of BDS will be one of them.

The stakes are high for the Europeans — EU estimates suggest that such an accord could add some 0.5 percent to the EU’s annual economic output.

The amendment’s sponsors say that there is ample precedent for such legislation. Senator Portman noted that in his previous role as a US trade representative, he negotiated key deals with Bahrain and Oman that required that both countries reject boycotts of Israel.

US Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) in a file photo (Photo credit: YouTube screen capture)
US Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) in a file photo (Photo credit: YouTube screen capture)

“From the time it was founded, Israel has been the target of a lot of attacks from militaries and terrorist groups but now there’s also this other attack,” said Portman. BDS, he said, “is in some ways more pernicious because it is economic warfare.”

“Other countries have attempted to weaken one of our strongest allies and embolden Israel’s enemies and have done so by this campaign that says somehow we should isolate Israel,” he added. “Fortunately these kinds of campaigns and boycotts have been beaten back before.”

When Saudi Arabia sought to join the World Trade Agreement, the kingdom had to grant Most Favored Nation status to all other members, including Israel.

Although the amendment sailed through the committee with a 26-0, it was not without its detractors. Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, condemned the amendment in an essay in the Baltimore Sun — the local newspaper for the bill’s other sponsor, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland).

“Senator Cardin’s initiative would effectively tie the hands of US trade negotiators by requiring them to defend Israel’s violations of international law,” Munayyer complained.

“The European Union has been moving in the direction of a stronger stance against Israel’s half-century long occupation and pro-Israel interest groups would like to use US trade policy to prevent this,” he added. “These interest groups have unfortunately succeeded in enlisting Senator Cardin in their cause of defending Israel’s heinous practices even at the expense of free speech and US business interests.”

The House of Representatives is expected to vote in the coming days on parallel legislation, which is identical in its wording to the Senate bill. The House sponsors, Representatives Peter Roskam (R-Illinois) and Juan Vargas (D-California), have been working for almost a year on preparing legislation to combat BDS.

The original House version of the bill contained a number of other provisions, including language that established as US policy opposition to politically motivated actions by states or international institutions that penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel. It also prohibited American courts from recognizing or enforcing judgments made by a foreign court against US companies for the sole reason that such companies were conducting business in Israel.

The bill was pared down, its sponsors said, in the interest of getting it through Congress more quickly. The remaining section, they said, represents the heart of the original bill, and they hope that the identical House version will pass easily this week.

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