Anti-BDS Bill Passed Senate, but Trouble Awaits in House

Some Democrats are convinced decision to tie controversial bill together with motions on aid to Israel and Jordan and sanctions on Syria was designed to spark intra-Democratic fighting

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talks with reporters during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 7, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite,AP

WASHINGTON – The Senate passed a bill last week that encourages state governments across the United States not to sign contracts with supporters of boycotts against Israel and its settlements in the occupied West Bank. The bill has since been introduced in the House of Representatives, but congressional sources from both parties tell Haaretz they doubt it will pass any time soon.

The bill in question is called the Combating BDS Act. It passed the Senate as part of a package of Middle East-related bills after being introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (Republican of Florida). The other bills deal with non-controversial, consensus issues such as military aid to Israel and Jordan, and sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria.

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Rubio and Senate Republicans added the anti-BDS bill into the package, setting the stage for an intense fight about it on Capitol Hill. The reason is that civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union are concerned that the Combating BDS Act is unconstitutional and harms American citizens’ freedom of speech.

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The bill encourages the implementation of local legislation passed in recent years by half of all American states, putting limits on state governments’ abilities to sign contracts with supporters of boycotts against Israel or the settlements. Two such laws have been frozen by federal courts in Arizona and Kansas, following lawsuits by state contractors who said the laws harmed their freedom of speech. Similar lawsuits have recently been filed in Texas and Arkansas.

When the package bill came up for a vote last week, 23 senators voted against it, including one Republican – Rand Paul of Kentucky. Many of those who voted against it clarified that if every aspect of the bill had been voted on separately, they probably would have supported the bills on assistance to Israel and Jordan and on sanctioning Assad, and would have only objected to the BDS bill, mainly because of concerns surrounding freedom of speech.

Such a vote could take place in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority, but not in the House, according to the congressional sources who spoke with Haaretz. Democrats are convinced that the entire purpose of the Republican decision to add the anti-BDS bill into the broader Middle East package was to orchestrate an intra-Democratic fight over the issue, and force many Democrats to choose between their position on the free speech criticism of the bill and their general opposition to BDS.

The Democratic leadership in the House, where it has had a majority since the midterm elections, will most likely break up the package into a number of separate bills. That will allow the House to approve the non-controversial bills on security aid to Israel and sanctions on Syria, without immediately setting the stage for a new round of internal party tensions on the “constitutional right to boycott” question.

While the other bills are probably going to see quick and easy approval, the anti-BDS bill could be up for a lengthy period of debate in the relevant House committees. There could also be an amendment process. In the Senate, for example, one Democratic senator, Gary Peters of Michigan, offered an amendment that would make it absolutely clear that the bill only refers to large companies, not to small businesses or sole proprietors. Another amendment offered to distinguish between Israel proper and the settlements in the occupied West Bank

The Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Lara Friedman, who is closely tracking the legal efforts against BDS across the United States, told Haaretz that Democrats in the House “can see what happened in the Senate and take a good guess that it will be even more controversial” in their chamber.

Friedman, a former State Department official, strongly opposes the bill and has been warning ever since its introduction that it will harm free speech. “The only ones who benefit from seeing Democrats fight amongst themselves on this issue are the GOP and folks in the U.S. and Israel who want to see Israel turned into a weapon for partisan gain,” she said.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful loby that supports the Israeli government, is urging Congress to pass the legislation. AIPAC wrote in its monthly publication, the Near East Report, that “Congress should take up and pass the Combating BDS Act as quickly as possible. This important bipartisan bill seeks both to protect states against claims they are preempting federal authority, and to demonstrate Congress’ strong support for state measures consistent with Congress’ historic commitment to oppose boycotts of Israel.”