WASHINGTON – The Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives approved on Thursday a bill that would give the Trump administration authority to penalize American institutions and companies that participate in international boycotts of Israel and its settlements in the West Bank. Following the committee's approval, the bill will advance to a vote on the House floor.
The controversial bill, known as The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, was first introduced by Republican and Democratic lawmakers last year. However, it has not advanced until recently, because of strong criticism it faced from civil rights groups, most notably the American Civil Liberties Union, who warned that it hurts free speech and is therefore unconstitutional. A number of Democratic lawmakers came out against the bill, and one prominent legislator, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, withdrew her support forthe legislation.
Following that wave of criticism, the bill went through some modifications. The version that passed the committee vote on Thursday is different than the original version, but critics of the bill claimed on Thursday that it is, in fact, even more harmful to free speech than previously, because the new version gives the Trump administration influence in determining who is involved in such boycott activities and how to respond.
One group, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, which is affiliated with the BDS movement, has stated that under the new version, "Congress will be essentially abrogating its legislative duties and turning the keys over to the Trump administration. This would be a reckless threat to the rule of law, especially given the Trump administration’s record on executive actions such as the Muslim ban and immigrant family separation. Once again, Congress will be trying to push anti-boycott laws past the limit of the First Amendment."
The bill passed the committee unanimously, with support from both Democrats and Republicans. In order to become law, it will now have to be approved in a vote on the House floor, and also in the Senate. The original bill received strong support from the pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC, but AIPAC hopes to advance it on the basis of a strong bi-partisan consensus, which means that leading Democrats in the Senate could still have influence on its final phrasing.