Landmark anti-boycott laws trapped by Congressional impasse

Trade bill amendments that would prevent US dealings with BDS-supporting companies stuck as House Democrats face off against Obama

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

Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011 (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)
Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011 (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)

WASHINGTON — Key legislation designed to discourage European countries from engaging in anti-Israel boycotts, divestment or sanctions (BDS) hung in an uncertain balance Wednesday, caught up as an unanticipated consequence of the acrimony between President Barack Obama and key Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Two amendments opposing BDS in Europe – one sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Republican Sen. Rob Portman and the other by Republican Representative Peter Roskam and Democratic Representative Juan Vargas – were included in a trade authorization package that faced crucial votes late last week in the House of Representatives.

According to their sponsors, both amendments seek to counter a rising tide of European support for the BDS movement by requiring US trade negotiators to make rejection of BDS a principal trade objective in Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations with the European Union. These guidelines, sponsors hope, will discourage European governments from participating in BDS activities by leveraging the incentive of free trade with the US.

If they are signed into law, both amendments will mark the first Congressional legislation opposing the BDS movement that has practical application rather than just stating Congress’s opposition to the practice.

The legislation hit the skids on Friday when the House voted narrowly to approve the first part of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill, which contains the Cardin-Portman amendment, but then resoundingly defeated Title II of the bill by a vote of 126-302. The defeat of the second part was a strategic maneuver by House Democrats who are concerned that trade negotiations with Pacific Rim states will prove disastrous for American manufacturing jobs.

Congress was asked to vote to authorize the president to negotiate trade deals, but the failure of the second vote meant that the authorization could not advance. The Trade Promotion Authority had to be passed as a complete package, so a failure to pass the second vote meant the failure of both halves of the legislation.

While the main part of the Roskam-Vargas amendment were included in the TPA itself, other provisions were included in a separate customs bill that also passed the House, albeit in a slightly different version from the one that had already cleared the Senate.

But although that bill can technically stand alone – it was not procedurally tied to the passage of the rest of the TPA – even its supporters question whether it has any real applicability if it is signed into law independently of the rest of the TPA.

Stinging from defeat, the Obama administration – which needs the trade legislation in order to conduct trade negotiations with Pacific states and with Europe – must work with the Republican House leadership in order to try to get the entire package passed. Even sending the customs bill to conference to reconcile the House and Senate versions is on hold until the fate of the TPA becomes clear.

The entire package already passed the Senate, and Senate Democrats say that they are taking a wait-and-see approach both to the bill as a whole and to the future of the anti-BDS provisions.

House Republicans have put forward a series of plans, few of which seem to satisfy even their own members, but there are indications that, one way or another, there will be another series of votes to try and get some or all of the legislation passed through to the president for signing by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, the amendments’ sponsors still hope to see the impasse cleared.

“Our primary goal is to make combating BDS central to free trade negotiations with the European Union. The TPA legislation approved on a bipartisan basis in the House and Senate would make this objective a reality,” said Roskam Press Secretary Michael Shapiro.

“Doing so would not only strengthen America’s ability to compete in the 21st century global economy, but continue Congress’s long tradition of fighting discriminatory boycotts against Israel,” he continued. “TPA is essential to asserting Congress’s role in the trade negotiation process and constraining the broad powers the president has right now by requiring the Administration to follow a list of specific, Congressional directives on important trade priorities, including combating BDS. That’s why we must send this critical legislation to the president’s desk.”

Although the amendments’ sponsors and supporters, including the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, describe the legislation as a potentially groundbreaking step in combating BDS, the amendments are not without their critics.

Americans for Peace Now has complained that the amendments conflate boycott of Israel and boycott of products of settlements – citing, among other clauses, a provision that defines “boycott, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel” as meaning “actions by states, non-member states of the United Nations, international organizations, or affiliated agencies of international organizations that are politically motivated and are intended to penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.”

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