A Poison Pill For AIPAC

Today, I’m asking my readers to please support the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The group has been working hard on some new legislation and it’s really important to help get this bill to the floor of the Senate and the House.

According to a report in Buzzfeed, AIPAC has been working with congressional staff members for months on the bill, trying to find the formula for success. The bill would “…aim to prevent U.S. companies from participating in the (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) campaign without infringing on Americans’ First Amendment rights to political speech. It would also try to make the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated between the U.S. and E.U. conditional on whether the E.U. takes action to stop BDS.”

And how would they prevent US companies from participating in BDS? By “…authorizing states and local governments to divest from companies deemed to be participating in BDS,” and by denying “…federal contracts to such companies.” This bill should be at the top of the agenda for American activists in the United States who wish to see our country change its policies towards Israel and Palestine.

AIPAC hasn’t been doing very well of late. Their attempt to weasel a provision into another bill that would have allowed Israelis to enter the United States without a visa while Israel refused to make the same arrangement for US citizens raised a lot of hackles on Capitol Hill, even in some offices that are very AIPAC-friendly. The proposed provision was killed. AIPAC was unable to sway the Senate against the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Nor has it been able to significantly impact the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

There have been a lot of failures lately, including the failure to get Congress to push hard for an attack on Syria last year. But this bill, if it ever reaches the floor, could be the biggest bust of all, with some serious ramifications for the powerful lobbying group.

Let’s just start with the First Amendment issues this raises. If this bill ever sees the light of day, AIPAC is going to try to convince people that it is similar to the laws passed forty years ago in response to the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. Put simply, it isn’t.

Those laws–the 1977 amendments to the Export Administration Act (EAA) and the Ribicoff Amendment to the 1976 Tax Reform Act (TRA)–were drawn up narrowly, to apply only in the case of abetting or cooperating with a boycott directed at Israel by other countries. The mentions of boycott “by a foreign nation” or similar words are so frequent that the meaning cannot be missed. This is no surprise, of course; Congress is loath to dictate to US businesses, and it is especially tricky where a national interest is not clearly and immediately at stake. So these laws were contrived so that they only barred supporting boycotts by foreign countries against Israel.

In the case of BDS, no government is running this program, not even the pseudo-governments of the Palestinian Territories. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has not endorsed boycotts of Israel and is, itself, completely incapable of boycotting Israeli goods and services. It is in most ways a captive market to Israel. Hamas has, frankly, paid little attention to such measures, though they have encouraged them rhetorically from time to time.

There is a call for BDS from Palestinian civil society, but that is not covered by the 1970s laws. Moreover, any law that would target BDS would need to be constructed in such a way so that it would not have made boycotts of Apartheid South Africa illegal. Those boycotts also came in response to a call from the African National Congress. If businesses could not engage in such activities, there would be great outrage.

So the Arab League boycott is moot as a basis for anti-BDS legislation. The right to boycott is also not limited by what the government decides is an acceptable boycott and what is not. People, and businesses, are free to choose with whom they will do business. Congress making such decisions violates the very essence of the First Amendment, and it is highly unlikely that such a law could pass as a result and, if it could, even less likely that it could withstand legal challenges.

The bit about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is even more toxic. The point of TTIP is to make international trade between the United States and European Union easier, to reduce tariffs and lessen bureaucracy. The idea is to significantly improve the speed, and thus the volume and value, of trade between the two economic giants. Adding stipulations like ensuring that EU states are working against BDS is precisely what TTIP is designed to avoid. Whatever my own objections to TTIP (and they are many), it clearly holds great appeal for businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is one thing for US citizens with influence in Washington to go along with the powerful lobbying forces defending Israel’s ability to act with impunity in the region; for the most part, that has not had a negative effect on trade. But this would be a very different matter. Now we are talking about AIPAC going up against powerful, domestic business interests. That is a whole new ballgame.

Even bringing the bill to the floor would demonstrate in a clearer way than ever before that AIPAC is willing to compromise US commercial interests and even one of the most cherished and basic freedoms the US prides itself on for the sake of Israeli interests.

Consider also that the overwhelming majority of boycott actions, divestment decisions and even popular proposals for sanctions against Israel have focused squarely on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They have not targeted Israel as a whole, with the exception of some of the attempts at cultural and academic boycott. But these are not major concerns for Israel nor do they have the same impact potential as economic boycotts and divestment. So, the threat to free speech and to international trade that this bill represents would be demonstrably in the service of the settlement enterprise, the siege of Gaza and the occupation regime more generally. The mask would be off.

In reality, I very much doubt any such legislation is ever going to move forward, at least not from AIPAC. They know the problems as well as anyone and, while I don’t doubt that they are working constantly with their closest friends in Congress to see if something could work, I don’t think they’ll be successful. But if you want to see AIPAC suffer major damage, such a bill would do it. I can’t think of a better strategy to oppose AIPAC than to do everything we can to make sure this sort of doomed anti-BDS legislation hits the floor in Congress with a resounding thud.

Is Hamas Winning?

An edited version of this piece first appeared at LobeLog

When Israel, or any country, engages in armed conflict with a guerilla group, even if that group controls significant territory and resources, it is a virtual truism that the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the gains for the non-state actor. In Gaza, Hamas’ quasi-governmental position still leaves it in the role of the guerilla enemy. And with the events of the past few days, it is worth asking if Israel is not losing this “war.” Continue reading

A Tale of Two Ceasefires

A slightly edited version of this article first appeared at LobeLog. It’s the best resource on the web for analysis of US foreign policy. Please check it out. 

The two ceasefire proposals aimed at ending the accelerated violence in Gaza and Israel offer one of the best illustrations of the

Relatives and friends of the al-Kaware family carry 7 bodies to the mosque during their funeral in Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. The father, a member of the Fatah movement, and his 6 sons were all killed the day before in an Israeli air strike that targeted their home. Credit: AFP/Thomas Coexthomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images/Used under a Creative Commons license

Relatives and friends of the al-Kaware family carry 7 bodies to the mosque during their funeral in Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. The father, a member of the Fatah movement, and his 6 sons were all killed the day before in an Israeli air strike that targeted their home. Credit: AFP/Thomas Coexthomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images/Used under a Creative Commons license

Israel-Palestine conflict one could ask for. The circumstances and the content of each proposal demonstrate very well why outside pressure is necessary to end this vexing, seemingly endless struggle and just how differently Israelis and Palestinians view both current events and the conflict as a whole.

Let’s look at the two proposals. Egypt, acting as the United States normally does, worked out the details of their ceasefire idea with Israel primarily. The deal reflects the Israeli and Egyptian agenda: it mostly follows the formula of “quiet for quiet,” essentially bringing back the status quo ante of early June. It offers Hamas a vague promise of future negotiations to address the siege of the Strip. But this is hardly something Hamas will put stock in. The 2012 ceasefire agreement, which was negotiated by then-Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, a man much friendlier to Hamas than the current Egyptian leadership, also made such a promise and it never came to anything. Finally, Egypt says it is willing to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt more widely but only if Hamas allows PA security to police it instead of their own people. Continue reading

A Desperate cry for help from Abbas

As President Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel approaches, one senses desperation from the Ramallah headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Obama’s scheduled stop in the West Bank has all the trappings of an empty gesture masking the real goal of creating coordination between the President and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issues of Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, protests in the West Bank are spreading as Palestinian hunger strikers inspire defiance against Israel’s ongoing occupation.

In that context, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seriously trying to convince Obama to focus attention back on the question of Palestine and the occupation. Abbas’ advisor Muhammad Ashtiya told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Monday that the PA is trying to get Obama to jumpstart the peace process by putting forth a formula for talks that “…will guarantee the end of the occupation in the territories of ’67.” Such a formula would make it unrealistic to talk “…while the Israeli government continues to build settlements and establish facts on the ground that will thwart a future agreement.”

In other words, the Palestinians would drop their (entirely reasonable) “preconditions” in favor of the US setting them. It’s hard to see Obama doing this to say the least. But Ashtiya is right in saying this is the only way for talks to resume. That’s why they won’t.

The very next day, US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed the itinerary for his first trip overseas in his new job. The Middle East leg will include Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, but not Israel. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland explained that Kerry did not want to disrupt Netanyahu’s coalition-building process. While that may be true, an Obama Administration that would even consider the sort of steps the PA is currently suggesting would want to push Netanyahu toward a coalition that would accept a US framework. Any notion that Obama was considering a step like that at this time is contradicted by Kerry’s demurral.

Perhaps at some point later in his second term Obama will try to fix the mess we call the Israel-Palestine conflict. But right now the task involves too many pitfalls and too few promises. Obama knows Netanyahu will buck any serious effort at US mediation, just as he knows that former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking the reins of talks with the Palestinians is nothing more than window dressing. Netanyahu has some incentive to appear more reasonable than he has for the past four years, but very little to actually try to forge a deal with the Palestinians. The Israeli public is nervous about the status quo, but that has more to do with their view that their government is isolating them from the rest of the world through brash statements and provocative actions than any sense of urgency to end the occupation.

Obama knows that Congress will revolt at the behest of AIPAC at any perceived pressure on Israel. With major battles over taxes and budget cuts looming, nuclear issues with Iran and now North Korea coming back to the fore and a Republican contingent determined to undermine his every move, Obama is not going to risk aggravating the Democrats in Congress that he absolutely must keep in line.

So Abbas is shouting into the wind here. The same sense of calm that keeps Israelis comfortable enough to refrain from pushing their government toward a resolution of the conflict also makes contemporary crises like Syria and the disposition of Hezbollah in Lebanon seem far more urgent. Yet this too, like Iran, is a bone of contention with congressional Republicans. Obama has no wish to increase his foreign policy difficulties.

Abbas’ options are becoming very limited. Israel has quietly and slowly been easing the siege on Gaza and while the situation there remains grim, there can be little doubt that even incremental improvements (which have largely consisted of some small imports of building materials and considerably larger imports of Israeli products) strengthen Hamas’ hand. As Palestinian reconciliation remains far off, Abbas is feeling domestic pressure from his political rivals. Add to that increasing protests, hunger strikers and the continuing, gradual growth of the global Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement (BDS), and Abbas is getting boxed in. Without some opening which only Obama can create, the credibility of Abbas’ program of negotiating with and reassuring Israel is dwindling to zero.

The Palestinians need the United States to bring forth a plan — Abbas and Ashtiya are not wrong about that. But Obama is not going to do that and risk alienating many in his own party unless it turns into something Israel wants. Netanyahu obviously doesn’t want it, and it’s not immediately apparent what Israeli leader would. But if the Palestinians — through non-violent but firm means such as the International Criminal Court, the BDS movement and continued appeals to Europe and Arab and Muslim countries that have relations with Israel — can increase pressure and make Israel’s populace less comfortable with the status quo, perhaps Israel will put forth a new leader with a peace mandate along the lines of that which they gave to Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

In that context, a president like Obama might have more options. But as it stands now, the Palestinian strategy should be based on the US being an obstacle, not a help.

Resolving the Gaza Siege Conundrum

The Gaza Flotilla disaster has shone a light on the siege of Gaza. After three years, the international community has finally stood up and said this must stop.

Now the question is how.

I’m reminded of a meeting I had about a year ago with several State Department officials. Already, the Obama

President Obama and President Abbas met this past week in Washington

administration had made it clear that Gaza was not an issue they wanted to deal with. They preferred to advance the peace process with Mahmoud Abbas and hope Gaza would just go away.

That was never going to happen, of course, but the Administration still seems to want to avoid dealing with Gaza if at all possible. The flotilla massacre made it impossible.

At that meeting, I went through the list of reasons why the siege on Gaza was both unjust and against Israel’s better interests. I stressed throughout, and continue to do so today, that Israel has legitimate security concerns that it has every right to address. But that right does not mean all restraints are off.

So after some discussion, I was asked what I thought should be done about it. I believe my answer to them still holds today as a way to address both Hamas and the rights of the people in Gaza. Continue reading