An untimely objection


Why did the State Department move from celebrating President Barack Obama’s legislative victory a day after the passage of the Trade Promotion Authority bill to “clarifying” a provision in the legislation that treats Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories” as a single economic entity?

The provision in question, spearheaded by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and approved by all members of the Senate Finance Committee, was aimed at discouraging European countries from supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) moves against Israel. It received strong backing from AIPAC. But critics of the amendment, including J Street, complained that the wording erased the 1967 border known as the Green Line that effectively separates Israel from “controlled territories” subject to negotiations for the creation of a Palestinian state. Those concerns were well known to the administration before the bill was passed yet the provision was kept in the bill nonetheless and is now part of the law.

That foreknowledge and acceptance make it all the more curious that State Department spokesman John Kirby went out of his way to point out that “by conflating Israel and ‘Israeli-controlled territories,’ a provision of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation runs counter to longstanding U.S. policy toward the occupied territories, including with regard to settlement activity.” Was that observation really necessary?

The trade bill was designed to grant the president the fast-track authority he needs to wrap up negotiations on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership that is supposed to herald a new age in American trade in Asia. In tacking on the anti-BDS amendment, Congress seized an opportunity to chip away at the threat of the BDS movement. However, because the BDS provision includes no enforcement mechanisms, the amendment allowed the administration to strongly oppose BDS against Israel and still maintain a separate policy for the West Bank. And that’s what Kirby “clarified” in his comments.

But why say anything at all? Why turn the discussion away from trade issues and an administration victory lap and focus instead on Israel? If the administration had concerns about the language, why didn’t it push for the removal of the phrase “Israeli-controlled territories” from the amendment when it was being debated in Congress rather than wait until after its passage to condemn it? And if the provision was left in as part of an effort to get votes to support the bill, why not honor the deal or at the very least remain silent?

The State Department knows well the sensitivity surrounding and the careful evaluation of every utterance it makes about Israel. Nothing of this nature is said without pre-clearance and purpose. Which makes us wonder, what exactly is Foggy Bottom trying to accomplish?

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