How prepared is the Obama administration to defend Israel against the boycott movement against it? Will Washington act against the global efforts to single out Israel as a target for sanctions in protest against its occupation of the West Bank? Yesterday, the US administration provided an answer to these questions, and it can be summed up as follows: the US opposes to the use of the boycott weapon against Israel, but when it comes to "Israeli-controlled territories", it's a different story.
It's not clear how the Obama administration can oppose a boycott of Israel and but not "Israeli-controlled territories", when at least some of the calls to boycott Israel are based on Israel's continuing control of the territories.
Last week, US president Barack Obama signed a comprehensive bill on trade, the Trade Promotion Authority, which, among other things, allows him a "fast track" in negotiating free trade agreements with Pacific basin countries and with Europe. This means that the administration can conduct negotiations with other countries without the involvement of the US Congress, and has to put before the legislators only the final wording of a potential agreement, which they can accept or reject only as a whole, with no power to amend particular clauses. The "fast track" negotiation provision was not however the only one in the bill.
With the support of pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, legislators introduced into the bill a section designed to protect Israel against boycotts. It provides in effect that US free trade agreements with other countries will be conditional on those countries not supporting any boycott of Israel.
Not content with this, AIPAC persuaded the authors of the amendment to include in it, besides the word "Israel", also the words "and Israeli-controlled territories".
The result is that US officials conducting free trade negotiations with other countries, and particularly with the EU, are supposed to persuade the other side not to support a boycott of "Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories." This amendment enjoyed wide bi-partisan support in the Congress, and many legislators saw it as expressing a stand against the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement.
Some in the Obama administration, chiefly in the State Department, argue that the significance of this formulation is that the US grants legitimacy to Israel continuing to hold onto the territories.
The administration thus found itself in a bind between two declared principles: opposition to the boycott movement against Israel, and opposition to Israeli control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem without a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The internal disagreements in the administration went on for several days, and emerged yesterday in a statement by State Department spokesperson Jack Kirby: "By conflating Israel and 'Israeli-controlled territories,' a provision of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation runs counter to longstanding US policy towards the occupied territories, including with regard to settlement activity. Every US administration since 1967 – Democrat and Republican alike – has opposed Israeli settlement activity beyond the 1967 lines. This administration is no different. The US government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements and activity associated with them and, by extension, does not pursue policies or activities that would legitimize them.” This was the first time that the administration had publicly responded to the controversial amendment.
Many analysts say that the unambiguous declaration by the State Department, distinguishing between "Israel" and "Israeli-controlled territories", indicates that the administration does not intend to implement the law and order its economic negotiators to express opposition to the boycott movement against Israel in trade negotiations with other countries. AIPAC's initiative appears to have boomeranged, while the Peace Now movement in the US and the J Street lobby, which describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace, responded with satisfaction to the administration's declaration.
Congressman Peter Roskam said in response to the State Department's statement, "The State Department's comments cast doubt on its true commitment to achieving a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians through direct negotiations, which has been and remains US policy. Instead, by imposing territorial distinctions, State is prejudging the outcome of the peace process. Our language reflects the reality that those who seek to destroy the Jewish state through the BDS movement do not distinguish between Israel and its territories. These measures, which the Office of the US Trade Representative publicly supported before the Ways and Means Committee in April, were unanimously adopted in the House and Senate. We expect the Administration to fully comply with the provisions mandated by Congress and signed into law by President Obama himself just a few days ago."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 1, 2015
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