2020 Democratic hopefuls keep distance from Israel anti-boycott bill

A companion bill has proceeded in the House of Representatives.

November 18, 2018 17:43
2 minute read.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. C

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 30, 2018. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)


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WASHINGTON – A bipartisan bill combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement making its way through Congress has earned the support of a majority of senators, save for a handful that share one thing in common: plans to run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Most senators who have expressed an interest in running for president this cycle – Senators Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York – have declined to join 57 of their colleagues to cosponsor the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.

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The bill would shield Israel and Israeli businesses by criminally penalizing US persons seeking to participate in international boycotts of the state, and marks the most significant federal effort to legislate against the BDS movement to date. It follows on a model adopted by several US states, including New York, Texas, California and Florida, to prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin.

Lawmakers drafted the legislation in 2017 as a response to a decision from the United Nations Human Rights Council to “blacklist” companies operating in the Palestinian territories, defined by that body as all territory beyond the pre-1967 war Green Line.

A companion bill has proceeded in the House of Representatives.

Over the summer, Democrats successfully pushed for edits in the spring to ensure free speech protections amid concerns from civil rights groups that the bill would infringe on the constitutional right to protest. Senators Ben Cardin of Maryland, a Democrat, and Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, accommodated several Democratic requests to broaden support for the bill.

But that has not been enough to earn cosponsorship from the most ambitious senators planning to run in a primary expected to be highly competitive and determined by the party’s liberal base.

So far, only one senator widely expected to run– Cory Booker of New Jersey– has said he will change course and throw his support behind the legislation with co-sponsorship.

“Initial concerns that this bill unintentionally infringed on individuals’ First Amendment rights have now been addressed by changes agreed upon earlier this year, and I feel confident that those modifications safeguard Americans’ constitutional right to free speech,” Booker told Jewish Insider, a Washington-based newsletter, earlier this month. “I have long and staunchly opposed the BDS movement, and support this bill which will prevent international entities from imposing their will on US businesses with regards to their decisions, consistent with US law, to conduct commerce with our close ally Israel and its citizens.”

Their tepid response to the legislation reflects a growing divide within the Democratic Party on Israel policy, reflected in the election of several House members hostile to the Jewish state in the 2018 midterm elections.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted early this year found that 79% of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than Palestinians in their historic struggle, compared with only 27% of Democrats.

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