Washington, DC – The US Senate has passed legislation defining United States security policy in the Middle East, introducing a measure that would allow state and local governments to sanction those who support boycotts, divesture and sanctions against Israel.
Tuesday’s Senate vote, which was 77-23, sends the legislation to the House of Representatives where it will likely face renewed debate, politicians said.
The legislation authorises $3.3bn a year for 10 years in US military aid to Israel, reauthorises the US-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act and imposes financial sanctions on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or companies and banks that do business with Damascus.
“Israel is without a doubt one of the best friends in the world,” Senator Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in remarks to the Senate. “Certainly, in that neighbourhood they live in, which is a dangerous neighbourhood, they need our help. We worked with them very closely in many, many respects.”
The legislation, which consolidated four bills that did not make it to Congress last year, drew controversy in the Senate and opposition from a number of senators because of added language authorising state and local governments to terminate contracts with US citizens who support the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The anti-BDS measure “is designed to see that the BDS activity is tamped down and that it is not appropriate to use against our friend, Israel”, Risch said.
Critics decried the measure as contrary to the free speech rights of Americans under the First Amendment of the Constitution, which in US jurisprudence has provided protection for people participating in boycotts as a form of political protest.
“Our country was founded upon the concept and in the midst of a great boycott,” Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said in remarks to the Senate opposing the measure. “At the time, we were boycotting British goods and most specifically, British tea. There is likely nothing more American than to protest, to dissent and to boycott.”
“The sad thing today is that we will be debating whether or not to place limitations on the First Amendment right to boycott, and we will do it because the vast majority of this body disagrees with the concept of what the people are boycotting over,” Paul said.
Twenty-six states have adopted anti-BDS measures, which is backed by the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee advocacy group. However, US judges in Kansas and Arizona struck down such laws in 2018.
“This goes beyond supporting Israel or not supporting Israel. This is about Americans’ civil liberties,” Shibley Telhami, a pollster and professor at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera.
“The differentiating characteristic of this one is that it is intruding into the civil liberties of Americans. Even people who oppose sanctions find it offensive that they have to penalise people who voice support for sanctions.”
In addition to supporting Israel, the legislation signals strong sentiment among politicians for continuing the limited US military engagement in Syria. Senior Republican leaders and a number of key Democrats said they want a delay and reevaluation of Trump’s order to withdraw US special forces from Syria.
On December 19, Trump announced he was pulling 2,000 US forces out of Syria, claiming the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group had been “defeated”. He later backtracked on the decision amid an outcry in Congress and no clear timetable has been set. US intelligence chiefs told a Senate hearing on January 29 that ISIL and al-Qaeda remained threats to US interests.
With this legislation, the Senate is calling on Trump to conduct a strategic policy review and consult US allies and partners in the region before drawing down US troops in Afghanistan by half from 14,000. Senators had voted 68-23 on procedural point to clear the amendment calling for the slowdown in Trump’s withdrawal plans.
The bill’s prospects in the House are unclear.
“It is unlikely the House of Representatives will address this bill in its current form,” said Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, who had attempted unsuccessfully to exempt small businesses and sole practitioners from the anti-BDS provisions.