The House gets it right on BDS

"A powerful statement demonstrating that an overwhelming bipartisan majority rejects BDS."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) administers the oath of office to House members and delegates of the U.S. House of Representatives at the start of the 116th Congress inside the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2019 (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) administers the oath of office to House members and delegates of the U.S. House of Representatives at the start of the 116th Congress inside the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2019
It’s August, which means bipartisan delegations of US congressmen are descending on Israel.
This year, they do so with the House of Representatives having just passed an important resolution, H.Res. 246, declaring opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to target Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. The measure passed by an overwhelming vote of 398-17.
That’s good news. It provides clarity about congressional views on BDS, with a clear bipartisan consensus in opposition to a movement that the resolution accurately states is “not about promoting coexistence, civil rights and political reconciliation but about questioning and undermining the very legitimacy of [Israel] and its people.”
Nevertheless, an odd debate ensued following passage of the resolution. Some called it weak, preliminary or meaningless. Others said it was unnecessary, overly harsh and even unconstitutional.
In fact, it was just right.
On the Right, there are those who favor outlawing BDS altogether and argued the House did not go far enough. But H.Res. 246 was a welcome contrast to other proposals, including the one the Senate advanced earlier this year. In February, the Senate passed S.1, which would encourage States to use their own purchasing power to punish those who engage in boycotts of Israel. It passed by a vote of 77-23, splitting the Democratic caucus down the middle.
Democratic Senators who voted against it were not BDS supporters; they are all on record as being against it. But they raised legitimate concerns about Congress and the states limiting freedom of expression protected by the first amendment. They foresaw years of legal challenges to this approach, which have already begun in response to state laws. Attempting to criminalize BDS in this way was certain to cause partisan divisions on an issue about which there is actually broad agreement. It did Israel no favors. The House took a better approach.
From the Left came the accusation that the House resolution itself compromised free speech, trampling constitutional rights by preventing people from exercising boycotts of Israel. But it does no such thing. The claim of its unconstitutionality, or its infringing on rights, is baseless: the resolution is non-binding. It merely expresses Congress’ view on a public policy matter, as many resolutions do. But it changes no laws.

ITS NON-BINDING nature does not mean the resolution was meaningless. It was a powerful statement demonstrating that an overwhelming bipartisan majority rejects BDS. Those who advocate BDS need to understand how strongly the US political leadership opposes it.
Some argued that the resolution is a form of congressional intimidation. But what that implies is that Congress should never take a position on any controversial subject. Their real objection seems to be substantive. Those who favor BDS as a tool of pressure on Israel object to seeing that tool undercut. It is a sour grapes argument. One can scarcely imagine them objecting to Congress expressing an opinion that they agree with.
Israel is not perfect or blameless in its conflict with the Palestinians. It bears its share of responsibility for the stalemate. The expansion of settlements in the West Bank, demolitions of Palestinian homes, and the recent open talk of annexation of the West Bank are doing damage – often intentionally – to prospects for a conflict-ending two-state solution. Many congressmen who supported the resolution will continue to voice these views.
But they recognize that BDS is an unreasonably one-sided movement that singles out Israel for all responsibility. The movement’s positions, taken to their logical conclusion, and underscored by its leaders’ own statements, call for Israel to be eliminated as a Jewish state. In an ahistorical way, it absolves Palestinians of all responsibility for the conflict, despite decades of terrorism and rejection of the legitimacy of a Jewish state, which continue to this day. BDS offers nothing that will help end the occupation, achieve two states and resolve the conflict.
So it is not surprising that most congressmen find BDS not just wrong, but fundamentally at odds with the US interest of a strong, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors, including in a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Indeed, that logic is why former president Barack Obama stood resolutely against BDS. He, then-vice president Joe Biden, secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and I – as US ambassador to Israel – spoke out against it often. Even during periods of strong disagreement with Israel over settlement expansion, Obama did not lose sight of our interests that BDS would undercut. He provided funding for Israeli missile defense, authorized Israel to acquire the F-35, and signed a $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding for the next decade of US military assistance. He actively promoted US-Israel economic engagement, which supported a 50% increase in bilateral trade.

ONE FINAL argument was voiced in opposition to the resolution: that it would whet the appetite of those seeking stronger legislation against BDS, like S.1.
Some called H.Res. 246 a slippery slope, paving the way for stronger legislation. And this claim was seemingly proven by the calls of Sen. Marco Rubio, the Senate bill’s lead sponsor, for further legislation immediately after the House action. If the House bill was intended to relieve pressure on Democrats to pass BDS legislation, the argument went, in reality, it only deepened it.
But that thinking has it backwards. It advocates voting against a measure not because of the language it contains, but rather because of language it does not contain, in fact, language that was intentionally omitted from it.
Pressure already exists to pass Senate-style BDS legislation in the House. House Republicans have repeatedly raised the issue this year in procedural votes they are able to force. They called for BDS legislation when the House had not acted, and they will call for more now that the House has acted. Little will have changed, other than House leaders no longer having to explain why their chamber has been silent on the issue.
Faced with pressure and criticism either way, fear of critics is not an argument to do what they say. It is an argument to do what you think is right. And that’s what 398 House members did.
They stated their clear objection to BDS. They did so in a way that compromises no rights and won’t get tied up in the courts. They made this issue bipartisan, not a wedge issue. And they acted commensurate with the actual threat that BDS poses – a serious problem, but fortunately a largely ineffective measure when it comes to damaging the Israeli economy.
Having passed this bill, the congressional leadership can put the issue of BDS to the side for the remainder of this Congress. There is no pressing need to push on for further legislation, regardless of calls from the Senate or House Republicans.
Finally, the resolution did something else of great value. At a time when the two-state solution is increasingly called into question – by Israelis, Palestinians and the Trump administration – it recorded an overwhelming bipartisan vote in support of two states. That is a statement to build on, holding members who voted for it to support measures to back up their word. It is a signal to those who seek to bury two states that it retains strong bipartisan support.
In the same way that opposing BDS helps uphold the US interest in sustaining our partnership with a strong, secure, Jewish, democratic Israel, helping keep the struggling two-state solution alive does much the same.

The writer is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as US ambassador to Israel and on the National Security Council staff in the Obama administration.