The annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) takes place this week, and many of the United States's most prominent politicians are flocking to it to genuflect before the powerful lobbying association. Vice President Joe Biden is a featured speaker at the event. So are Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and a long list of other politicians. Even Donald Trump, who recently had the temerity in a Republican debate to announce that he would be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians and then caught holy hell for it from his Republican rivals, is speaking. Most of our American politicians do their utmost to ingratiate themselves with AIPAC. Recognizing that AIPAC does in fact shape policy for the United States, our policy makers also troop there. This year National Security Advisor Susan Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power will be speaking. It may be that the last and only bastion of bipartisanship that remains in the U.S. Congress is the consensus of our political class that Israel, alone out of all the countries in the world, should receive special largesse and automatic, unquestioning support.
This year AIPAC is pressing the case for more aid to Israel, over and on top of the $3.1 billion it receives annually, and is making anti-Boycott, Divest and Sanctions legislation a priority. After the conference ends Tuesday, hundreds of those attending it will flock to legislators' offices this week seeking support for legislation that would penalize those who support the B.D.S. movement to sanction Israel for human rights abuses. Last year anti-B.D.S. provisions were included in the 2015 federal Trade Promotions Authority law. In February, legislators in both the U.S. House and Senate introduced the Combating BDS Act of 2016, which would target those taking part in a boycott of Israeli goods made in the West Bank.
Boycotts are, of course, a peaceful, time-honored method used to press for social justice. They were used in the civil rights struggle in this country and in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The Supreme Court has ruled that they constitute free speech and are protected by the First Amendment.
With Congress unable to outlaw the B.D.S. movement outright, the Combating BDS Act aims to encourage and authorize states and localities to divest from, and prohibit investment in, companies that boycott Israel because of concerns about Israel’s human rights violations. Last year the Illinois state legislature passed a law requiring Illinois to divest from any foreign entity that divests from Israel. Similar measures are being considered by at least half a dozen other states.
According to a press release put out by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), who with Sen. Joe Minchin, D-W.V, introduced the Combating BDS Act of 2016 in the Senate, the purpose of the legislation is to protect state and local governments who pass anti-B.D.S. laws from lawsuits alleging they are unreasonably burdening or discriminating against interstate or foreign commerce.
AIPAC notes that the bill introduced in the House of Representatives goes further, establishing opposition to B.D.S. as U.S. policy and requiring foreign companies to disclose to the Security and Exchange Commission participation in trade-related B.D.S. activities and obligating the U.S. Trade Representative to report annually to Congress on B.D.S. activities around the world and the U.S. response to them.
The Combating BDS Act is clearly meant to stifle public debate over Israel’s action and to suppress the campaign for Palestinian human rights. The B.D.S. movement originated as an effort by Palestinian civil society to enlist the support of citizens, institutions and governments around the world to put economic pressure on Israel to live up to its obligations under international law and end its occupation of the Palestinian territories.The movement has picked up steam in recent years—hence efforts in Congress to counter it and charges that it is anti-Semitic. Frequently, these efforts erase the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories, a back-door attempt to change long-standing U.S. policy that Jewish settlements on Palestinian land are illegitimate.
In addition to AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago are also supporting the Combating BDS Act of 2016. Commending Senators Kirk and Minchin for sponsoring it, Amy Stoken, Chicago regional director of the American Jewish Committee, said: “We applaud their introduction of bipartisan legislation that will authorize state and local governments to divest from the divestors—and leave the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to direct, diplomatic negotiations between the parties, where it belongs.”
But 23 years of direct diplomatic negotiations have not produced peace between the parties and have simply grown and entrenched the Israeli occupation. Next year will mark the 50th year Palestinians have been living under Israeli military occupation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that at least on his watch Israel is uninterested in making peace and is bent on further expanding Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
This Israel has done and is doing on the U.S. dollar. It is a human rights scandal that for decades now the U.S. Congress has generously aided and abetted a process that it both subsidizes and condemns. For Palestinians, who for years have been witnessing the slow and steady disappearance of their land and with it the prospects of a state of their own, Israeli expansionism is tragic. For Israel, it is self-destructive, dooming it to pariah status and to the destruction of its democracy.
AIPAC’s influence in Congress derives from the money it directs to politicians it favors and against politicians it doesn’t. The corrupting effect this can have is reflected in its campaign to persuade Congress to block efforts at peaceful change.