Israel Boycott Fight Divides Democrats on Free Speech Concerns

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Republicans are daring Democrats to vote against a measure aimed at preventing anti-Israel boycotts as they seek to portray the party as divided over Israel.

Republicans added a provision to an otherwise bipartisan Syria sanctions bill that would let local and state governments cut ties with groups and businesses that advocate boycotting Israel. The new provision prompted complaints from some Democrats who say it would restrict free speech in an effort to politicize traditionally bipartisan support for Israel.

“It encourages states to adopt unconstitutional legislation,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said. “I don’t think we should be in the business of forcing anybody to sign a loyalty pledge as a condition of employment.”

Israel Boycott Fight Divides Democrats on Free Speech Concerns

The Senate, which voted 74-19 earlier this week to advance the measure, may pass it as soon as Thursday. Senate Democrats had blocked the overall bill three times this month while the government was shut down, saying they wanted to reopen federal agencies before turning to other topics.

Republicans seemed to welcome the controversy, hoping Democratic opposition to the provision could be used to portray a tilt to the left in the Democratic Party’s stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. GOP Senator Marco Rubio, who added the Israel-related measure to the legislative package, said Democrats had been stalling the vote and had “no excuse not to move to it now.”

Israel Boycott Fight Divides Democrats on Free Speech Concerns

“There’s a desire by Republicans to use Israel as a wedge issue,” Dan Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, said in an interview. “Not a single Democrat in the Senate supports BDS, so there is an opportunity to craft the provision on BDS in a way that reflects that consensus and make sure it passes constitutional muster.”

Global Movement

BDS refers to the global “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement against Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. BDS calls for ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, ending discrimination against Israeli Arabs, and allowing Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to lands they fled or were expelled from in 1948. Israel says it represents a threat to its character as a Jewish state.

This month, Florida, Rubio’s home state, became the second state to bar Airbnb Inc. from receiving state pension fund investments ahead of its upcoming IPO for removing Israeli-owned properties in the disputed West Bank from its rental service. The company has said it doesn’t rent in disputed areas worldwide but also doesn’t support the BDS movement.

Read more: Florida Blocks Airbnb Investments Over West Bank Rentals

Supporters of the Republican-backed provision, which is part of larger Middle East measure that authorizes security assistance to Israel, say it’s meant to stop a group whose ultimate goal is to squeeze Israel through economic pressure.

“The campaign is driven by actors not entirely transparent about their goals,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department who’s now senior vice president at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I’m not sure their goal is to get Israelis to leave the West Bank. This is an extension of the original Arab boycott, which is designed to harm the Jewish state.”

Israel Boycott Fight Divides Democrats on Free Speech Concerns

Three of the Democratic Party’s new members of the House -- Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan -- have made waves for their criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Tlaib and Omar have signaled they back the push for a boycott, a minority view that Republicans have sought to use to taint the rest of the party.

“They forgot what country they represent,” Tlaib said of Republican efforts in a tweet. “This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality. Maybe a refresher on our U.S. Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away.”

‘Wedge Card’

Shapiro, the former ambassador, said Republicans sense an opportunity to focus attention on those members.

“Two members of the House majority have endorsed BDS in some fashion,” he said. “For Republicans, that tempts them to play the political wedge card rather than go for the bipartisan consensus card.”

Asked about the constitutionality of the bill, a spokesman for the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, Marshall Wittmann, cited a newsletter from the group saying the bill does nothing to restrict “constitutionally protected free speech” and simply makes clear that “U.S. states have the authority to act against commerce or investment-related boycotts targeting Israel.”

That view was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said two federal courts have blocked anti-boycott laws.

“These laws don’t just threaten the First Amendment rights of companies,” Abdullah Hasan of the ACLU said in a statement. “They have and continue to strip teachers, lawyers, speech pathologists, newspapers, journalists, and even students who want to judge high school debate tournaments of their First Amendment right to boycott.”

The underlying bill would authorize at least $3.3 billion annually through fiscal 2028 for security assistance for Israel and reauthorize expedited U.S. defense sales to Jordan. It would also direct the president to impose new sanctions against those doing business with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Efforts to isolate Israel’s economy date back to state-led Arab boycotts of the 1940s. These days, with Israel and Arab nations increasingly working together behind the scenes to counter Iran, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has focused its attention on fighting the BDS movement, an amorphous international group led by pro-Palestinian activists worldwide.

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