WASHINGTON (JTA) — Fines for boycotting Israel would be extended to companies complying with the BDS movement, including the boycott of West Bank settlements, under a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Reps. Pete Roskam, R-Ill., and Juan Vargas, D-Calif., introduced the bill Monday. The measure is a companion to one introduced in the Senate in September by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Ben Cardin, D-Md., called the “Protecting Israel Against Discrimination Act.”
The House bill amends language in bills passed in the 1970s to combat the Arab League boycott of Israel to encompass the modern Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – and to include efforts that would boycott settlement goods.
Whereas the original anti-boycott laws targeted companies cooperating with boycotts that were launched before Israel’s establishment as a means of squeezing its Jews, and then as a means of isolating the new Jewish state, the new bill appears to extend the definition to those who would use boycotts to pressure Israel into giving up territory.
The measure defines the “boycott of, divestment from and sanctions against Israel” that would merit penalties as including those “that are politically motivated and are intended to penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.”
“Israeli-controlled territories” encompasses settlement boycotts.
The bill further defines “politically motivated” as meaning “actions to impede or constrain commerce with Israel that are intended to coerce political action or impose policy positions on Israel.”
A spokesman for Cardin said the bill could extend existing anti-boycott fines to those who joined BDS-initiated boycotts, but that the criminal penalties in existing anti-boycott laws would not apply to BDS boycotters. Moreover, the spokesman said, the bill’s thrust was to update current law, which bans boycotts initiated by foreign governments to include those initiated by international governmental organizations.
Still, it could face First Amendment challenges for seeking to link fines attached to export violations to “politically motivated” actions that include aims as minimal as getting Israel to rejoin peace talks with the Palestinians.
Furthermore, some liberal pro-Israel groups, like J Street and Americans for Peace Now, have distinguished between the boycott of settlement goods and the boycott of Israel, opposing actions that would equate both types of boycotts as equally harmful.
Similar efforts led in 2015 to anti-boycott language, encompassing boycotts of settlements, to be included in trade bills. In that case, however, the impact of the language was limited: It required U.S. trade negotiators to raise in their talks with their overseas counterparts U.S. objections to Israel-related boycotts. When President Barack Obama signed the bill in February of this year, his administration said it would continue to advocate against boycotting Israel in its trade talks, but would not include the language counseling against settlement boycotts.
The legislation was sparked in part by the creation of a database by the United Nations Human Rights Council of companies that do business with Israel’s settlements. It extends existing penalties for boycotting Israel to international organizations like the council.
The bill also requires the Export-Import Bank, a government agency that seeks to facilitate American trade overseas, to consider whether a company applying for a loan adheres to the BDS movement.
An error in an earlier version was corrected to show that J Street and Americans for Peace Now do not oppose settlements boycotts, but do not advocate for them either.