Alan Elsner

US Congress Being Tricked into Defending Settlements

A little-noticed clause in the comprehensive free trade bill currently being debated by Congress would turn the United States into an open defender of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, turning almost 50 years of US policy on its head.

The measure’s backers in Congress, as well as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are trying to sell their provision as a defense of Israel against the threat of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which is gaining traction worldwide.

But the true intent of the measure becomes clear when its language is examined. The amendments require U.S. trade negotiators to “discourage politically motivated actions” by foreign countries and international organizations that aim to “penalize or otherwise limit” commercial relations with Israel or “persons doing business in Israel or in territories controlled by Israel.”

One of the measure’s backers, Congressman Peter Roskam (R-IL), made that intent plain Tuesday in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal in which he listed examples of the kinds of actions the bill would cover, all of which concerned commercial entities operating in the West Bank. The bill essentially says that targeting products made in the settlements would be the same as targeting products manufactured in Israel proper.

US policy since 1967 has consistently opposed the establishment and expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank where the hope is that Palestinians will create their own state as part of a peace agreement ending the long conflict with Israel. This amendment essentially converts the United States from an opponent into an defender and even an enabler of settlement activity. It would make it easier, by reducing potential liabilities, for companies to conduct commercial or related activity in occupied territory that is expanding and deepening the very settlement enterprise that the US opposes.

Most of the international community regard the settlements as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which governs the treatment of territories captured by one nation from another nation in war and forbids transfer of the occupying nation’s civilians into the occupied territory. Perhaps even more important than their illegality, the settlements have long loomed at a major obstacle to peace.

But Israeli rightists, backed by allies in the United States, have increasingly sought to blur the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories, which they now routinely refer to as “disputed territories.” They say, and this is clear from Roskam’s Op Ed, that any action targeting the settlements is the same as an action against the state of Israel.

There are millions of people around the world, including the overwhelming majority of American Jews, who love and support Israel but yet worry about its long-term future as a democracy and a Jewish homeland if the settlements continue to expand and the occupation becomes permanent. The pro-settlements measure slipped into the trade bill sends them a message that their support and love are not wanted.

If it were simply a case of protecting Israel, merely removing the words “or in territories controlled by Israel” would turn the bill into one that everybody in the pro-Israel community could support. Moreover, as columnist J.J. Goldberg pointed out in a recent article in The Daily Forward, the United States already has stiff measures on the books, going back to the 1970s, that target boycotts against Israel. “The sole effect of the new congressional measures, therefore, is to extend U.S. protection to the settlements ‘in territories controlled by Israel’,” he wrote.

This is a step the US Congress should simply not take. Defend Israel against boycotts by all means – but don’t defend settlements which are throttling hopes of ever reaching peace.

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.