Cardin, don't tie U.S. hands for Israel

Ben Cardin wants to prevent the U.S. from trading with supporters of the BDS movement.

Putting Israel's interests before America's is something you might expect from Republican politicians these days, especially in recent years as Democratic President Obama has clashed with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But you may not expect such behavior from a leading Democratic senator like Maryland's own Ben Cardin. Unfortunately, that's exactly what is happening.

Tomorrow, Senator Cardin is expected to quietly insert a bill he wrote into another piece of legislation as an amendment during a markup session on Capitol Hill. The bill, the "U.S.-Israel Trade Enhancement Act," was put forward by Senator Cardin and co-sponsored by a Republican counterpart, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Since the bill received no further co-sponsors, it seems like the senators intended from the outset to sneak the bill in to avoid a public conversation over it.

The bill itself instructs U.S. trade negotiators to make defending Israel from boycotts part of their negotiating objectives. This measure is aimed as silencing and mitigating actions taken by some European states alongside the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. The BDS movement is meant to ensure that financial dealings with Israel do not support violations of international law and stated U.S. policy, like the building and expansion of settlements and the myriad human rights abuses that are commonplace in military occupation.

Senator Cardin's initiative would effectively tie the hands of U.S. trade negotiators by requiring them to defend Israel's violations of international law. No wonder the senators are trying to sneak this bill in.

The BDS movement is a response to a call made by Palestinian civil society nearly 10 years ago that asked for the international community's support in pressuring Israel to abide by its obligations under international and humanitarian law. The European Union, with which the U.S. is engaged in negotiating a major trade deal called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), has taken some preliminary steps to regulate its financial dealings with Israeli settlements.

BDS is a legitimate, non-violent way for civil society and states to press Israel to comply with international law and end its human rights abuses. Boycott, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, is a constitutionally protected form of free expression. In fact, it was only a few months ago that Senator Cardin himself praised boycotting as a tactic in non-violent struggle.

Despite the efforts of a 25-year, U.S.-led peace process between Israel and the Palestinians based on the objective of a two-state solution, Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory have only expanded. The number of Israeli settlers living in occupied territory has nearly tripled, and they have become formidable obstacles to disentanglement. Because the United States has refused to pressure Israel in any meaningful way — even though it routinely states its opposition to Israeli settlements — Israeli decision makers have taken American inaction to mean they have the green light to continue their colonial expansion. The only way to change this is by imposing costs on Israel until it changes its behavior.

The European Union has been moving in the direction of a stronger stance against Israel's half-century long occupation and pro-Israel interest groups would like to use U.S. trade policy to prevent this. These interest groups have unfortunately succeeded in enlisting Senator Cardin in their cause of defending Israel's heinous practices even at the expense of free speech and U.S. business interests.

As a former constituent of Senator Cardin who has witnessed some of the important contributions he has made to the state, I hope he changes course and withdraws this amendment. To oppose the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians yearning for freedom from military occupation is immoral, and it is bad for Palestinians. To do so by tying the hands of U.S. trade negotiators is bad for business owners and laborers alike in the United States and in the great state of Maryland.

Yousef Munayyer is executive director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and a doctoral candidate in Government and Politics at the University of Maryland-College Park. His email is director@endtheoccupation.org.

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