Restated US distinction between Israel and its settlements a green light for boycotts, divestment

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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When President Barack Obama signed the Trade Promotion Authority bill in June 2015, the fear was that the long-standing U.S. position opposing Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was eroding.

That was because the bill included an amendment that “requires the U.S. Trade Representative to discourage European Union countries from boycotting ‘Israel or persons doing business in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories’ during free-trade negotiations between the U.S. and the EU.”

For a moment, it seemed that, for the first time in American diplomatic history, Israeli settlements -- more properly “colonies” as the French call them -- were being considered as part of Israel. Such recognition would have served as the first step in reversing longstanding American opposition to the settlements, and its support for the two-state solution.

Once the bill was signed into law, however, Obama put to bed any notion that the U.S. position on Israeli settlements had changed. What seemed for a brief moment as a step toward legitimizing the settlements was clearly and forcefully stopped in its tracks by the State Department.

“The U.S. government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements and activity associated with them and, by extension, does not pursue policies or activities that would legitimize them,” said State Department spokesperson John Kirby. “However, by conflating Israel and 'Israeli-controlled territories,' a provision of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation runs counter to longstanding U.S. policy towards the occupied territories, including with regard to settlement activity.”

By allowing that boycotts of settlement products do not merit American opposition, the administration was upholding the long-held distinction between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Kirby further reinforced the point in a statement that every U.S. administration since 1967 has opposed settlements and recognized that settlements are an obstacle to a two-state solution. “The U.S. government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements and activity associated with them and, by extension, does not pursue policies or activities that would legitimize them,” he said. “… We will also continue to uphold policies integral to preserving the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The influential American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had strongly lobbied for the bill in a transparent attempt to blur the lines between Israel and the settlements in the Occupied Territories. Ironically, with the Obama administration making it clear that it does not accept the conflation of Israel and the settlements, AIPAC’s lobbying ended up achieving the opposite of its intention.

The United States has now made clear the distinction between Israel and Israeli settlements in occupied territory, and emphasized that while the U.S remains committed to Israel’s security, it will not extend that protection to the settlements.

The administration’s statement was taken as a clear message to supporters of a two-state solution in the U.S. that Israeli settlements are fair game for public opposition. More importantly, it signaled that sanctions against and divestment from companies doing business with Israeli settlements would not be opposed by the U.S.

Within hours of State Department spokesperson Kirby making his statement, the United Church of Christ (U.C.C.) voted to divest its holdings from companies that are profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Critically, the United Church of Christ resolution did not target companies doing business inside Israel proper, focusing only on divesting from companies doing business in the Occupied Territories as a way of advancing the goals of ending the occupation. This is a correct and important distinction to make because Israel has used the issue of divestment and sanction to paint all such efforts as one and the same. 

Whether divesting from companies profiting from the occupation or boycotting an academic conference in Tel Aviv, Israel lumps these actions together as de-legitimizing Israel’s very existence. They are not intended to de-legitimize the State of Israel, but rather to oppose Israeli settlement and business activities in the Palestinian Territories, acts forbidden under international law.

The Obama administration has taken an important step not only in reinforcing the longstanding U.S. position on settlements but also in making it clear that it will not oppose boycotts of settlements. Groups supporting economic sanctions and divestment from companies doing business in Israel should focus only on those doing business in the Occupied Territories, not those who do not cross the 1967 borders into the West Bank.

By doing so, activists in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as the U.C.C. did, will counter the false Israeli narrative that these actions are anti-Israel and reinforce the international consensus that settlements are illegal. They are not Israel and are not entitled to the same legitimacy that Israel is due.

Settlements/colonies are a serious threat not only to a two-state solution but also to Israel’s future. For Israelis, the best way to defend Israel against attempts to de-legitimize it is to affirm the illegitimacy of the settlements and thereby strengthen Israel’s legitimacy and security within its internationally recognized borders.

Until this is done, “negotiations” to make Israel’s borders permanent alongside a Palestinian state will remain a diplomatic ruse to distract the world’s attention from a predatory land grab.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics and global human development at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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