December 8, 2019

Bipartisan bill in House and Senate targets settlement boycotters with fines

A bipartisan slate of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill that would extend fines on companies that comply with the Arab League boycott of Israel to those complying with a U.N.-designated boycotts of settlements.

The Israel Anti-Boycott act initiated Thursday in the House of Representatives and the Senate was prompted in part by the call last year of the U.N. Human Rights Council for the creation of a database of companies that deal with Israel entities in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. On Thursday, the council approved a resolution calling on countries to cut ties to settlements.

Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced the compliance bill in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Juan Vargas, D-Calif., introduced the measure.

“The United States should bring its foreign policy and its economic institutions, its relationships, and its leverage to bear to combat boycott, divestment, and sanctions actions against Israel,” Cardin, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “We should not stand idle when foreign countries or international governmental organizations use BDS tactics to isolate one of our key allies.”

The bill attaches fines passed in a 1979 law targeting the Arab League boycott of Israel, then in full force. The boycott has since abated in influence, in part because it was criminalized by the United States.

Liberal pro-Israel groups have objected in recent years to similar legislation, arguing that boycotting settlements — an action that some liberal Zionists support — should not be wrapped into broader boycotts of Israel, which most of the Jewish community rejects.

Cardin has argued that the new legislation is not aimed at protecting settlements, but at keeping the Palestinians from forcing Israel’s hand in determining a final-status agreement absent talks.

“We cannot allow these attempts to bypass direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to go unchecked,” he said in his statement.

His release emphasized that the bill includes language that “does not make any U.S. policy statement about Israeli settlements” and “is only about opposing politically-motivated commercial actions aimed at delegitimizing Israel and pressuring Israel into unilateral concessions outside the bounds of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.”

The bill comes on the eve of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference. AIPAC has been assisting lawmakers in drafting pro-Israel bills that would attract support from both parties, a rarity in a Washington increasingly polarized by President Donald Trump’s administration. Its activists will lobby for the bills on the last day of the conference, which runs March 26-28.

On Thursday, a bipartisan raft of senators introduced a bill that would target Iran with sanctions on its missile testing and its backing for destabilization in the Middle East, but that avoids sanctions that have been relieved by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. A similar bill was introduced the same day by Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip. Hoyer and Royce are scheduled to speak at the conference.

Democrats back the Iran deal, which trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program, while Republicans oppose it.