Analysis

AIPAC May Be Celebrating Now, but the BDS Battles in Congress Have Just Begun

House vote shows that Democrats object to BDS, but they can expect growing Republican pressure to support more thorough anti-boycott legislation

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) attend a hearing on drug pricing in the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. July 26, 2019
AFP

You could practically hear the champagne corks popping and fireworks exploding across AIPAC’s social media feeds on Wednesday. 

The celebration was justified. At a time of unprecedented partisan division, it was no small feat for legislation condemning the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel to make it through the Democrat-led House of Representatives, let alone by a vote of 398-17. Even better for the pro-Israel lobby, which aspires to wall-to-wall support of the Jewish state, the overwhelming endorsement garnered “yea” votes from prominent progressives, including a member of the vaunted “squad” — Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts).

Supporters of AIPAC were delighted that with the passage of House Res. 246, no less than 92 percent of the House had agreed “to condemn the BDS campaign as anti-Israel, anti-peace and damaging to U.S. interests.” This, they said, was “representative of the broad, bipartisan support in Congress for Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship.” 

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But anyone who believes that this resolution will in any way resolve or mitigate the bitter political wrangling over BDS has been drinking too much celebratory champagne, said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace — a nonprofit that promotes a two-state solution. 

“You’d have to be delusional to think that this is over,” said Friedman.

The nonbinding vote Wednesday may have been impressive, but it was just a short chapter in the saga of BDS legislation that has been underway for two years and will continue into the future. And even as the celebrations continued, future battles were shaping up on both sides of the aisle.

Although the passage of the resolution did put Democratic objections to the “the Global BDS movement” on the record, Republicans openly dared them to move beyond mere words and support binding legislation that would deliver real consequences to entities that boycott Israel or the settlements. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (Republican of Florida) is author of the Combating BDS Act, which encourages state governments not to sign contracts with supporters of boycotts against Israel or its settlements (passed by the Senate in February). He goaded House Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi by saying that for months she “has refused to bring my bipartisan bill to combat the BDS movement’s discriminatory conduct and strengthen America’s security in the Middle East to the House floor. … Out of fear of retaliation from the far left wing of her conference, it’s clear that Speaker Pelosi has allowed the radical, anti-Semitic minority in the Democratic Party to dictate the House floor agenda.”

Rubio’s bill was the latest manifestation of legislation that has been in limbo for the past two years. In 2017, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act was first proposed in the Senate, in an attempt to target government-sponsored boycotts of Israel and update laws drafted in response to the Arab League boycott of Zionist goods and services in what was then British Mandatory Palestine in 1945. 

Objections to the legislation — primarily, but not exclusively, among Democrats — focused on the argument that such laws violate free speech, a charge led by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In his reaction to the House vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican of Kentucky) scoffed while speaking on the Senate floor that “this symbolic BDS resolution is held up as a major victory, while Senate-passed legislation that would actually take action — actually do something against BDS — doesn’t even get a vote.” 

On the Democratic side of the aisle, progressives who were not among the 17 members who voted against the resolution (which included the three other “Squad” members, Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib) were on the defensive, following criticism that they caved to pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.

In a Twitter thread, Pressley said that while “there are a lot of anti-BDS bills out there that infringe on 1st Amendment rights,” in her view the House resolution “wasn’t one of them.” That, she said, convinced her to support “what I heard resounding” in her district: “That voting yes on this resolution affirmed to my constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist, a view I share as a supporter of a two-state solution.”

She vowed that she would never vote for a bill that would punish those who support BDS, and stressed that “this resolution does not mitigate the pain and trauma of the Palestinian people and as with my co-sponsorship of the McCollum bill, I will continue to be a strident voice critiquing conservative Israeli policies.”

Pressley was referring to the bill introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum (Democrat of Minnesota), which would “require that the Secretary of State certify that American funds do not support Israel’s military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children.” 

Another Democratic congressman who voted for the resolution, civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, also defended himself by pointing to another piece of legislation he co-sponsored: a bill introduced with Tlaib and Omar last week. That bill, which did not mention Israel by name, affirms “that all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad.” Lewis said it “was a simple demonstration of my ongoing commitment to the ability of every American to exercise the fundamental First Amendment right to protest through nonviolent actions.” Squad members Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez made a point of signing on as co-sponsors of the bill later in the week as well.

At the same time, Lewis said he co-sponsored House Res. 246 “as a longtime friend of Israel,” and because he wanted “to make it very clear that I disagree strongly with the BDS movement. Economic, educational and cultural interaction with Israel, America’s democratic ally, is not only in the best interest of Israelis and Americans, but it improves the climate for peace with Palestinians, which is in everyone’s interest to encourage.”

Friedman, of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says Democratic leaders are fooling themselves if they think that passage of the resolution will “release some of the pressure on them” to sign onto more punitive anti-BDS legislation and “neutralize the issue as a weapon for attack against them.”

She predicts that it will have exactly the opposite effect: “Right now, you see Republicans celebrating that they managed to corner the Democrats. For people motivated to go after Democrats, they have signaled that this is an issue on which they — the Democrats — are vulnerable. Once you give into bullies, you are going to get bullied more. I expect BDS to come up in every possible context and that Republicans will keep pushing Democrats, asking them why they won’t move on the Combating BDS Act. They’d have to be nuts not to. the way they see it, this is the gift that keeps on giving.”