Five Things to Know This Week: The Political Battle Over BDS and Free Speech
1. Trump triples down, makes Israel main reason for racist attacks
Though it’s been more than a week since President Trump launched his tirade against four progressive Democrats, all women of color and known as “the squad,” little has changed. Trump, true to form, vehemently denied any racial element in his tweets and public attacks against the Congresswomen (“I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” he tweeted), and instead chose to repeat and amplify his attacks time and again, claiming that Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley are not “capable of loving our Country.”
Trump also dug his heels in on tying his rhetorical offense aimed at the four lawmakers to their views on Israel, and repeatedly noted their lack of support for Israel as a reason they should “go back” to the countries “from which they came.” “They should apologize to America (and Israel) for the horrible (hateful) things they have said,” the president tweeted on Sunday.
Using Israel as a shield for racist attacks and justifying the targeting of non-white members of Congress by pointing to harsh words they’ve used to criticize Israel is now no longer a fluke; it is a key campaign message, central to Trump’s 2020 appeal.
This leaves Israel and its supporters in the U.S. with two bad options: Either ignore Trump’s use of Israel in a racist context and face the accusation of being acquiescent to bigotry, or take a forceful stance against Trump’s comment and be exposed to claims of not standing up to attacks, at times vicious, launched against Israel by progressive politicians.
2. The politics of BDS laws
The White House is not the only political player weaponizing support for Israel. Right now, the U.S. Congress is knee-deep in a battle over the BDS movement–not how to stop it, but rather how to place blame on the other side for not doing so.
A House non-binding bill, H.R. 246, which condemns boycotting Israel and the BDS movement, passed the Foreign Affairs committee last week with bipartisan support. It was a small victory for many pro-Israel activists who for months had sought language that would please all sides by expressing strong opposition to BDS, while not taking actions that could be interpreted as suppressing the free speech of those who wish to boycott Israel.
But as is the case with many compromises, this one has left those on the extreme ends of the debate unsatisfied and frustrated. The House legislation got hammered from progressive Democrats for infringing on their free speech (Omar, Tlaib and Rep. John Lewis immediately presented a counter resolution expressing support for the right of citizens to boycott whomever they wish) and also from Senate Republicans. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell upbraided the House Democratic leadership for not taking on another anti-BDS bill which passed in his chamber. That legislation would support the right of states to boycott the boycotters of Israel and if passed it could have significant legal implications.
So what can we make of all of this?
Most lawmakers, regardless of party or chamber, oppose the idea of boycotting Israel. A few on the progressive end don’t, and some on the Republican side think there’s room for tougher action. For Israel, its American supporters and most Jewish activists this should be enough, especially given the fact that boycotters aren’t banging down the doors of American companies and have failed to make a dent in Israel’s economy. A simple resolution condemning the movement could have been quite sufficient in making this point.
3. Iran tension watch
The situation in the Persian Gulf is escalating quickly. With Iran and the U.S. shooting down each other’s drones and Iran and the UK engaged in a maritime tit for tat, there’s a clear sense that even the smallest spark could ignite this tinderbox.
Would Israel want that to happen? No.
Despite its hawkish approach to Iran and its stated wish to see the U.S. and Europe lead a campaign of pressure against the Islamic Republic, a full-scale war is not what Israel is hoping for, nor is any other kind of limited military engagement. Israeli leaders may be secretly praying for a regime change in Tehran which could potentially neutralize Israel’s greatest strategic threat in the region, but on a practical level they understand this is not a likely scenario.
How would Israel want to see this crisis end? Jerusalem’s realistic best-case scenario includes a Washington-Tehran economic and diplomatic showdown which ends with a rearranging of the field: new restrictions added to the nuclear deal, a tough international sanctions regime enforcing limits on ballistic missile development, and an effective mechanism to intercept Iranian military and financial support for terrorist groups in the region. This will take some diplomatic brinkmanship, of the kind leaders in Washington, London and Tehran may not be capable of conducting.
4. Peace plan watch
With Jared Kushner’s Bahrain economic “workshop” already in the rearview mirror, the Trump peace team is now looking for the next step in implementing its partially-revealed peace plan. Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt will be heading out to the Middle East again next week and will make stops in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. The talks will focus on cementing some of the economic understandings that came out of the Bahrain summit, but Kushner’s team will also be taking the temperature of all key players in the region (except, of course, the Palestinians themselves who do not communicate with Trump’s administration), trying to figure out when would be a good time to roll out the peace plan. Initially, the idea was to do so after Israel’s September elections, but an earlier date is also being considered.
5. Dermer heading home?
It’s been six years since Ron Dermer presented his credentials as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. In this time, Dermer navigated the U.S.-Israeli relationship into uncharted waters. He orchestrated a showdown with the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal, bore the brunt of angry Democrats and White House officials who would not forgive his attempt to bypass the president of the United States, but he survived to see Trump take office and implement, in some regards thanks to Dermer’s work, a new American policy, fully in line with that of Netanyahu and Israel’s right wing.
Now, Dermer’s remarkable, and highly controversial, run may be coming to an end.
While Netanyahu would like to keep him on for a seventh and perhaps eight year (a regular tenure in Israel’s foreign service is no more than four years), Israel’s civil service commissioner has stepped in and said no. Netanyahu made it clear he’s willing to go to the mat for Dermer and is insisting on extending the ambassador’s term.
Who will win? Recent history has shown that Netanyahu is pretty good at getting what he wants.