July saw the conclusion of an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program, and focus is being shifted back to the Arab-Israeli conflict. With it are explicit threats that Israel will be blamed and isolated if the US Congress blocks the agreement. But presidential candidate Hillary Clinton went on record opposing BDS, thus bringing the issue into the campaign. At the same time, the US State Department has gone on record stating it will not enforce new anti-BDS legislation included in a recent trade bill. BDS is thus now a full-fledged partisan political issue in the US. This will likely empower additional European boycott proposals, several of which were reported in July.
July’s most important BDS developments occurred in the political arena. Democratic candidate for President Hillary Clinton stated that she was “alarmed” by the BDS movement. In a letter to Democratic Party supporter Haim Saban, Clinton stated “From Congress and state legislatures to boardrooms and classrooms, we need to engage all people of good faith, regardless of their political persuasion or their views on policy specifics, in explaining why the BDS campaign is counterproductive to the pursuit of peace and harmful to Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
Clinton’s letter was applauded by pro-peace activists but condemned by BDS advocates who called her “a creature of Washington that is out of touch with the progressive base of her party.” The Clinton statement also presidential candidate Ted Cruz, mostly recently that universities that boycott Israel should lose Federal funding. BDS is thus a presidential campaign issue as well as another fissure within the Democratic Party.
BDS has also been woven implicitly into other issues. Clinton’s statement came at almost the same time as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran was concluded. Criticism of the agreement has been widespread, particularly from Israel. In response, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that should the US Congress go on record opposing the agreement, “our friends in Israel could actually wind up being more isolated and more blamed.” In the past Kerry’s statements regarding Israel’s ‘isolation’ have been regarded as a green light by European entities proposing boycotts of Israeli entities in the West Bank.
In another interview Kerry leveled a tacit threat regarding Israeli military action against Iran, stating, “That’d be an enormous mistake, a huge mistake with grave consequences for Israel and for the region, and I don’t think it’s necessary.” Kerry’s later meeting with American Jewish leaders to push the agreement was characterized as “tense.” Commentators close to the Democratic Party have threatened that lawmakers opposing the deal ‘choose’ Israel over the United States and thus alienate the party from Israel for years to come. This threat has deep implications for the status of BDS in American politics.
The American administration’s attitude towards Israel was also clearly displayed in statements from regarding anti-BDS amendments attached to the newly adopted Trade Promotion Authority. After the measure was approved by Congress a State Department official voiced the administration’s disapproval of both BDS and “conflating Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories,” which, it was claimed, “runs counter to longstanding U.S. policy towards the occupied territories.” In this view the law applies only to “business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories” and that the “U.S. government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements or activity associated with them, and, by extension, does not pursue policies or activities that would legitimize them.” The threat to selectively enforce the new law is explicit and is consistent with the administration’s general approach. Critics note that this also gives an explicit green light to European entities to boycott Israel, precisely in the name of the peace process.
BDS continues to be addressed different by the US Congress and at the state level. A hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform featured several speakers, including Daniel Birnbaum, the chairman of SodaStream, which has been a prime BDS target. Two additional speakers described the ways in which BDS constituted not only economic warfare against Israel but also threatened the United States. The hearing came after the signing of a bill in Illinois making it illegal for the state pension fund to invest in companies that boycott Israel.
After Iran, European governments have also been refocused on the Arab-Israeli conflict. A series of reports indicated that the European Union (EU) would soon require products originating in Israeli communities in the West Bank to be specifically labeled. While this is a long-standing question, a series of recommendations from the European Council on Foreign Relations also proposed that European entities differentiate their relationships between Israel and Israeli communities in the West Bank in order not to provide ‘material support to the occupation.’ This would include restrictions in areas such as loans and finance for Israeli banks and individuals with interests in the West Bank, acceptance of professional credentials, and relationships with government institutions based in East Jerusalem.
Critics noted the difficulties European institutions would have in determining which Israeli individual or institution had financial or other interests in the West Bank would lead to more widespread boycotts of Israel as a whole. Other have long noted the European position was inconsistent or even hypocritical since the EU has long had relationships with entities in Turkish occupied Northern Cyrus and other ‘territories acquired by war.’
The report, however, may have had its desired effect. The Israeli government was indignant and Israeli bank stocks temporarily slumped in response. A European diplomat stated, unpersuasively, “We have no intention of imposing restrictions on Israeli banks that do business in the settlements. This entire issue is complete nonsense. This issue has never been considered.” Other reports, however, suggest that European countries such as France are indeed considering such measures. An analysis by the Israeli Finance Ministry, which estimated potential losses from various levels of European boycott, indicates that some Israeli officials take the threat seriously. Overall, the pattern of European threats and reassurances should be regarded as a form of political pressure if not psychological warfare against Israel.
In contrast to BDS threats emanating from European bureaucrats, Italian Foreign Minister Matteo Renzi stated while on a visit to Israel, “Whoever thinks to boycott Israel does not understand that he is harming himself and betraying his future… Italy will always stand for cooperation and never for boycotts, which are stupid and futile.” This is consistent with the larger pattern of reassurances from elected European officials.
In other political and economic news, it has been announced that French telecommunication giant Orange will be ending its relationship with the Israeli firm Partner. A scandal erupted in June over remarks by Orange’s CEO, Stephane Richard, who was quoted as saying the firm was “ready to withdraw” from Israel “tomorrow morning.”
Church-based divestment resolutions were also debated by several American Protestant denominations in July. The United Churches of Christ’s general synod adopted a boycott and divestment resolution aimed at Israel while another, which deemed Israel an “apartheid state,” was not approved. Reverend John Deckenback, who submitted the resolution, praised the church’s “spirit of love for both Israelis and Palestinians.” Critics were split on whether the move by denomination, which has shrunk by half in recent decades, would have more than a symbolic impact. A BDS resolution was also defeated in the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops, while voting on a resolution by the Mennonite Church U.S.A.’s assembly was delayed until 2017.
Finally, in news from academia, the regents of the University of California decided not to debate the US State Department’s definition of antisemitism but rather to have a discussion on “tolerance” at its fall meeting. Critics of the definition of antisemitism charged that it would restrict free speech on campus, while supporters noted it was a necessary protection for Jewish students and others.