Controversy over the massive, bipartisan customs bill that President Barack Obama signed into law last week has boiled down to the question of “conflation.” The law, which deals with international trade enforcement, includes language opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and also applies restrictions against entities employing the practice to those seeking to boycott goods produced in the West Bank and Golan Heights.
Obama opposes BDS, but he also opposes the application of the law to “Israeli-controlled territories.” The president explained in a signing statement, “Certain provisions of this act, by conflating Israel and ‘Israeli-controlled territories,’ are contrary to longstanding bipartisan United States policy, including with regard to the treatment of settlements.” He indicated he would not enforce the section of the law treating settlements the same as Israel proper.
Liberal pro-Israel groups, including Americans for Peace Now and J Street, whose focus is on ending much of Israel’s presence in land outside of the so-called Green Line, praised Obama’s opposition to the provision. But the president’s critics say it is he who is conflating Israel proper and the settlements. The two are mentioned separately in the law, indicating they are not the same. According to law professor Eugene Kontorovich, who wrote about the issue in The Washington Post: “The law treats Israel and the settlements as distinct. [The president and his supporters] have conflated opposition to settlements with openness to using boycotts against them.”
The president’s position has no effect on the law itself. The effect of the signing statement is purely political. But with whom was the president trying to score those political points? At a time of heightened sensitivity to the unnecessary tension between his administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, why did Obama feel the need to make this an issue? Worse yet, many Israel supporters who oppose the advance of BDS on any front see this move as a giveaway to the boycott movement.
Six prominent Democratic senators have criticized Obama’s interpretation of the law. Sens. Harry Reid (Nev.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) said in a statement that the wording in the law is not about conflating, but about discouraging commercial actions “aimed at delegitimizing Israel and pressuring Israel into unilateral concessions outside the bounds of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. … These provisions are not about Israeli settlements.”
The law is the law. Roiling the waters over it does neither Israel nor the United States any good. The president should have known better.