J Street rallied its supporters last week, urging its members to call their members of Congress to decry language amended to a free trade bill being debated in the House of Representatives that it claimed would upend decades of U.S. policy toward Israeli settlements.
“New legislation in Congress is about to blur the important and long-standing distinction between Israel and the occupied West Bank,” the email to supporters from the self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace organization began. “Now, a small provision in a new major trade bill wants to move U.S. policy beyond just defending Israel from BDS. Ignoring the Green Line, it asks that U.S. negotiators defend settlements in the West Bank — the same settlements that U.S. policy has opposed for decades.”
The small provision that compelled J Street’s call to action boils down to just five words — “in territories controlled by Israel” embedded in amendments authored by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Reps. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) and Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) that discourages European trading partners from engaging in boycotts of Israel or Israeli-controlled territories. The amendments passed unanimously through the House and Senate finance committees in April.
Alan Elsner, J Street’s vice president for communications, in a piece published by the Huffington Post, described the legislative language as a move by “Israeli rightists” to turn “almost 50 years of U.S. policy on its head.”
“This is a step the U.S. Congress should simply not take. Defend Israel against boycotts by all means — but don’t defend settlements that are throttling hopes of ever reaching peace,” he wrote.
Elsner clarified in a phone call that J Street has not taken a position on the larger issue of fast-track trade authority, which the Obama administration is pushing Congress to approve over the objections of many Democrats led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. J Street’s goal is to see “those five words come out of the bill.”
Roskam defended the necessity of the anti-BDS language in a recent op-ed piece.
Despite hundreds of phone calls Elsner asserted had been made by J Street supporters, it is unlikely that the language pertaining to Israeli settlements will be altered or removed.
Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said, “It’s like pushing a rock up a hill. The [White House] may be displeased, [the language] may not be perfect, but they’re not going to let this issue mess with the president’s legacy.”
Fast-track authority has plenty of problems outside of any objections to the anti-BDS amendment, Miller pointed out.
The bill, which passed the Senate in May with bipartisan support in a 62-37 vote, faces fierce opposition from Democrats in the House — only 17 out of 188 Democrats have come out publicly in support of the measure. Labor unions alongside some environmental groups vehemently and vocally oppose the deal.
Republicans plan to push ahead regardless. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently told reporters that a vote on the bill will move ahead this month.