Signing law to defend Israel from boycott, Obama excludes settlements

US trade legislation features anti-BDS provision that relates to settlements, but president says this ‘conflation’ of Israel and the territories runs contrary to ‘longstanding bipartisan US policy’

President Barack Obama speaks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Baltimore, Md., Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama speaks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Baltimore, Md., Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama signed a bill on Wednesday that punishes the international boycott campaign against Israel, but said he will not apply a segment that extends protections to West Bank settlements.

The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, aimed at removing unfair barriers to competitive US trade, passed the US House of Representatives in December and the Senate on February 11.

A lengthy section of the law on promoting US-Israel trade requires non-cooperation with entities that participate in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and reporting on such entities. The section includes within its definition of an Israel boycott actions that would target businesses in “Israeli-controlled territories.”

“I have directed my administration to strongly oppose boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions targeting the State of Israel,” Obama said in a signing statement. “As long as I am president, we will continue to do so. Certain provisions of this act, by conflating Israel and ‘Israeli-controlled territories,’ are contrary to longstanding bipartisan United States policy, including with regard to the treatment of settlements.”

Obama further said in the statement that “consistent with longstanding constitutional practice” the administration would negotiate with other countries under the law “in a manner that does not interfere with my constitutional authority to conduct diplomacy,” language used in signing statements to signal that a president will not apply a part of a law that does not comport with US foreign policy.

The BDS portion of the law, backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was authored by Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill. and Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif.

There are multiple bills under consideration in Congress and in over 20 state legislatures targeting BDS. Many of the state bills mandate the divestment of state funds, including pensions, from entities that boycott Israel and a number of those bills extend protection to the settlements. Illinois and South Carolina have passed into law in recent months anti-BDS bills that include protection for settlements.

The Florida legislature this week passed a law that includes settlement protections, and it awaits signing by Governor Rick Scott. A similar bill was introduced this week in the Ohio legislature.

When the White House announced two weeks ago that Obama would sign the bill, AIPAC hailed the move: “The provision puts the US firmly on record opposing BDS and supporting enhanced commercial ties between the United States and Israel,” it said. “This measure builds on the important work of Congress … passing into law firm anti-BDS negotiating objectives for American trade negotiators.”

Within 180 days after Wednesday’s signing, the US administration will be required to report to the Congress on global BDS activities, including the participation of foreign companies in political boycotts of the Jewish State. The law also includes a number of legal protections for American companies that operate in Israel.

While the Obama administration has long expressed adamant opposition to BDS tactics targeting Israel, there are several references in the legislation to “Israeli-controlled territories” or “any territory controlled by Israel” as being included in the terms of the bill.

View of the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumin, in the West Bank. February 13, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
View of the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumin, in the West Bank. February 13, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The conflation of Israel proper with contested territory runs counter to longstanding US policy that Israeli settlement activity is an obstacle to achieving a two-state solution, an administration official told The Times of Israel earlier this month. For that reason, the US government abstains from pursuing policies that it sees as conflicting with that objective.

The official stated that the White House seeks to strengthen its economic ties with Israel while at the same time maintaining the policies it considers integral to preserving and advancing the prospect of a two-state accommodation with Palestinians.

Since 1967, the US government has opposed Israeli settlements and activity associated with them, the official said, also insisting that since the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement was first signed, in 1985, such a balancing act has been a priority of all US administrations, Democrat and Republican alike.

Notwithstanding Obama’s reservations about some of the bill’s language, his signing it is likely to please Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the BDS provision explicitly instructs US trade representatives to discourage European Union member countries from engaging in Israel boycott efforts.

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