WASHINGTON — A new Congressional bill will seek to battle efforts to boycott Israel by linking rejection of BDS to a trade agreement being negotiated with the European Union, the largest free trade deal in history.
The Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act, which will be officially submitted Tuesday afternoon in Washington, enjoys bipartisan sponsorship which backers hope will help it advance quickly through Congress.
Representatives Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Juan Vargas (D-CA) co-sponsored the bipartisan legislation, which they say will “leverage ongoing trade negotiations to discourage prospective US trade partners from engaging in economic discrimination against Israel.”
The bill, which has been worked on for over six months, does not authorize any sort of federal response to domestic BDS initiatives, but rather would use free trade negotiations to discourage foreign and international institutions from supporting initiatives to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel.
The bill’s sponsors have their eyes on the ongoing negotiations to create a free trade agreement between the US and EU – an agreement that proponents say will be the largest free trade deal in history.
The measure would make rejection of BDS a major objection of negotiations for the trade pact.
“The bill will and establishes a clear US policy of opposing BDS as detrimental to global trade and regional peace and stability,” Vargas and Roskam wrote in the introduction to the measure.
The introduction notes that the bill comes in response to a growing trend among countries, “primarily in Europe, to isolate and delegitimize Israel through BDS for political purposes.”
The two will begin to sign on additional co-sponsors after the bill is introduced on Tuesday afternoon, and are optimistic that it can advance through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“Today, an alarming number of countries within the European Union and beyond have embraced BDS as a form of economic warfare aimed to cripple Israel’s economy and demonize its very existence. These attacks not only threaten Israel, but commercial relations across the globe,” Roskam said Tuesday. “The US -Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act will ensure that American free trade partners never engage in this harmful and illegitimate political protest against Israel, while also protecting US companies from foreign lawsuits targeting their associations with Israel.”
“BDS is a harmful political tactic which seeks to undermine and diminish Israel’s economic strength,” said Vargas. “We need to reassure our commitment to our ally in the region by clearly defining US policy to oppose this practice and dissuade other nations from adopting BDS policies toward Israel.”
In order for the free-trade deal with the EU to be brought to fruition, Congress must pass the Trade Protection Authority, which enables the president to negotiate free trade deals. The TPA comes with a series of major objectives for negotiations – and the bill’s sponsors hope to include rejection of BDS as one of them.
“We see this bill as one piece of a puzzle. There is no one solution to the BDS movement – there is an economic side, an academic side, a cultural side,” said an aide to Roskam. “We think this is a proactive approach that looks forward at the free trade negotiations that we’re having with the EU and we think this could have a significant impact.”
The bill’s sponsors drew parallels to laws passed by Congress in the 1970s regarding the Arab League boycott of Israel, and noted that more recent trade agreements with Bahrain and Oman included anti-boycott clauses.
Instead, the bill will instruct the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to utilize free trade negotiations to discourage potential trade partners from participating in or promoting politically motivated acts of BDS against Israel, and to seek the elimination of boycotts and barriers to trade where they exist.
This provision would impact the ongoing free trade negotiations between the US and the European Union.
The stakes are high for the Europeans – EU estimates suggest that such a deal could add some 0.5% to the EU’s annual economic output.
The legislation also establishes as US policy opposition politically motivated actions by states or international institutions that penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel. This would include boycotts and divestment, as well as state-sponsored sanctions.
It would prohibit American courts from recognizing or enforcing judgments made by a foreign court against American companies for the sole reason that such companies are conducting business in Israel.
The administration would be required to provide Congress with regular reports on any such judgments and steps taken by the government to discourage them.
It will also establish the monitoring of BDS-related activities by requiring foreign companies traded on US stock exchanges to disclose whether they have participated in, or have faced pressure to participate in, acts of economic discrimination against Israel. The legislation does not however establish any penalty for doing so.
The bill also contains statements reaffirming the economic relationship between the US and Israel, including the “strategic importance of trade and commercial relations to the pursuit of sustainable peace and regional stability.”
This last clause was intended by the sponsors to not just put Congress “on the record” against BDS as deleterious to trade, but also on the grounds that it undermines the possibilities for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Former ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, currently campaigning to enter the Israeli Knesset, endorsed the bill in a letter to Vargas and Roskam.
Oren described the bill as setting “a new and principled bar against all attempts to boycott Israel and to undermine America’s vital interests in the Middle East.”
Oren published an op-ed piece in Politico in December 2013 calling for Congressional action against the BDS movement, and has worked with the bill’s sponsors over the past year to confront the phenomenon.
Coming as ties between Washington and Jerusalem seem to have hit an low not seen in decades, Oren said the Roskam-Vargas bill “is a testament to the historical alliance between our two countries and a reminder to the world of America’s commitment to always stand by its friends.”
“Congress has always been the bedrock of the US-Israel relationship, and we have an historic opportunity before us to once again reaffirm the mutually beneficial ties that bind our great nations,” Roskam stressed.