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House Anti-BDS Resolution Reveals the Power and Limits of the Israeli Lobby

July 30, 2019

The defense of Palestinian rights has become more acceptable and accusations of anti-Semitism have become more sparing in the mainstream media, despite the House's recent resolution against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, says IPS's Phyllis Bennis

The defense of Palestinian rights has become more acceptable and accusations of anti-Semitism have become more sparing in the mainstream media, despite the House's recent resolution against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, says IPS's Phyllis Bennis



House Anti-BDS Resolution Reveals the Power and Limits of the Israeli Lobby

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Last week, the US House of Representatives passed Resolution 246 with an overwhelming 398 to 17 majority, condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and in support of Palestinian rights. It was a lightning quick reaction to Representative Ilhan Omar’s move as she filed a resolution to protect the right of Americans to engage in boycotts in light of the  McCarthyist campaign to silence the BDS movement. The House resolution that did pass is very short and does not really explain what BDS is about and what about it is so objectionable. Only one reason is given: that BDS is supposedly opposed to a two-state solution for ending the Israeli occupation in Palestine. However, BDS is not a political party and has no official position on two states or one state. Republican Representative Lee Zeldin argued that BDS is anti-Semitic and said the following about the resolution.

CONGRESSMAN LEE ZELDIN (R-NY) Congress needs to make a very strong bipartisan statement against BDS and this resolution does just that. In addition, we should also enact legislation with teeth. In February, the Senate passed anti-BDS legislation S.1 with a strong bipartisan vote. This bill allows state and local governments to adopt laws to divest public funds from entities that boycott Israel. Lead Republican McCaul already has a bill in the House, HR 336, that is identical to S.1 and contains the anti-BDS legislation. I would strongly encourage the Speaker to bring this bill to the floor  as well so that not only are we making a strong statement, but we are doing something about it.

GREG WILPERT Joining me now to discuss the House’s anti-BDS resolution is Phyllis Bennis. She is a Fellow and Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. Her latest book is an updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Thanks for joining us again, Phyllis.

PHYLLIS BENNIS Great to be with you, Greg.

GREG WILPERT So this House resolution is very similar in its wording and its length and the way it was fast-tracked to a resolution that got a very large majority actually in the German Parliament, the Bundestag, in May of this year. The German media revealed recently though that the Bundestag adopted the anti-BDS resolution after the Israeli lobby in Germany exerted pressure and promised money to several key German legislators— some of whom came forward and revealed the lobbying effort. Is there any information about the United States effort that the Israeli lobby, such as AIPAC, played a role in promoting the House Resolution 246 here as well?

PHYLLIS BENNIS I don’t think we have direct information about what role AIPAC played or other parts of the pro-Israel lobby such as CUFI, Christians United for Israel, which just held a major lobby day in Washington a couple of weeks ago. But the condemnation of BDS has been a consistent theme for AIPAC, for CUFI, and for other supporters of Israel. So this isn’t something that’s new and different.

What was different here, this was a shift at the last minute of the language of the resolution to add language that essentially said we love boycotts— just not this one because there had been this additional resolution that was put forward, and discussion in the media, and elsewhere within Congress as well, that basically said boycotts are a longstanding Supreme Court-vetted and approved method of free speech in this country. They are legal. You can’t stop them. There’s nothing wrong with boycotts. And the notion that this was going to criminalize BDS, which was the goal of an earlier version of the anti-BDS resolution that did not make it through Congress, this was clearly designed to get rid of that problem and say, no, no, no, boycotts are fine— just not this boycott. This one, we’re going to treat differently. So it was a very carefully crafted resolution in that sense.

It also, it’s important to note, even though it sounds very technical and kind of wonky, the fact that it’s a “resolution” and not a bill means that there’s nothing enforceable in it. It doesn’t criminalize anything. It doesn’t actually punish anybody for supporting BDS. It only— and the only is a very big only— it puts Congress on the side of condemning BDS. It doesn’t call it anti-Semitic, but essentially implies very strongly that it is. It says that it’s unacceptable, that it’s one-sided, that it’s aimed at individual Israelis. It makes a lot of statements that are just not true about what BDS is and isn’t. But the goal of it is to really put Congress on record as condemning BDS as unacceptable, as politically unacceptable. And that’s what I think we need to examine in looking forward at this.

GREG WILPERT I actually want to get back to the point about anti-Semitism. As I mentioned earlier, Representative Lee Zeldin accused BDS of being anti-Semitic several times without giving any examples. But the resolution, as you mentioned, does not actually say it outright. Now, do you think that this is a result of—I mean, how is that? Why is that? I mean, in the past they came close to passing resolutions that actually did include that consideration.

PHYLLIS BENNIS But they didn’t pass them. And that wasn’t the only reason, but it was part of it. There’s been a gradual escalation, which rapidly has increased. In the recent period, it’s become not so gradual. It’s become much more dramatic. The weaponization of the claim of anti-Semitism, false claims of anti-Semitism used to undermine the legitimacy of movements, of individuals, of political positions. And it’s a drastically terrible thing to be happening, among other things. Aside from undermining the work on Palestinian rights that’s so important, it also undermines the ability to fight back against real anti-Semitism, which is of course on the rise, tied to white supremacy, coming from the right-wing, attacks like we saw with the attacks on the synagogue in Pittsburgh, other attacks on Jews, on Jewish worshippers. This is a disastrous situation. And in that context, the false claims of anti-Semitism equating criticism of Israeli occupation, of the Israeli violations of international law as being somehow anti-Semitic, undermines the ability to fight back against the real anti-Semitism. So that’s a big part of what we see underway in this resolution. They were being quite careful not to make the specific allegations that they would then have to defend, but allowing— I don’t think it was only Representative Zeldin, I think others as well have made the claim— that BDS is somehow inherently anti-Semitic.

GREG WILPERT Now, President Trump has said that he is actually not committed to a two-state solution. And the Israeli government regularly speaks about annexing the West Bank. And Netanyahu recently announced that the colonies will never be evacuated. So why are members of the House still pushing the two-state solution? And are members of Congress doing anything else to demonstrate this political view other than lashing out against BDS?

PHYLLIS BENNIS Well, what they’re doing is claiming it as the legitimate position of the United States because it’s been the US government position for 25 years. The fact that Trump has now essentially from the Right abandoned it rhetorically, doesn’t mean very much. Members of Congress and other officials have supported this forever. The so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process is grounded in this notion of a two-state solution. The problem of course is that whatever one thinks about a two-state solution, whether it’s just or unjust, doesn’t really matter anymore because at this point it’s become impossible. The amount of land that has already been taken over by Israel, whether they call it annexation or not, has been taken over for military purposes, for so-called green protection, for building the apartheid wall, 85% of which of course is inside Palestinian territory, not dividing Palestinian territory from the historic border of 1967.

All of that territory has made the possibility of a viable Palestinian state based on the land — the 22% of the land from historic Palestine that was supposed to be the basis of a two-state solution, that’s just over. You have 650,000-700,000 Israeli settlers now living on Palestinian land. These are settlers who are violating international law simply by getting up in the morning because their land has been illegally expropriated. So the question of a two-state solution is really a dead letter. But because for Congress this is a political issue and not a strategic question, they are sticking to this notion because it’s what they know, it’s what they have based their support for Israel on, and it’s at some point going to become much more clear that it simply isn’t a viable option anymore.

GREG WILPERT Now finally, what does all of this foregoing— what we’ve been talking about— tell us about the state of organizing for Palestinians’ rights?

PHYLLIS BENNIS Well ironically, I think there is some actual good news on where the movement for Palestinian rights is, and that is that victories on a number of aspects of this movement are happening across the country. There are BDS victories. The real victory that we’re seeing is in changing the massive support for Israel that once was characteristic of not only US official policy, but of public opinion, of media coverage. The media coverage is still problematic— mainstream media coverage— but it’s nothing like it was two years ago or five years ago or ten years ago. You hear references to the Palestinian Nakba, the catastrophe, the Palestinian definition of what happened in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel based on the expropriation and dispossession of Palestinians from their land. You never used to hear about that in the mainstream media. Now, that’s a standard. You see Palestinian voices across the media landscape. They’re not doing it right. They’re not doing it well. It’s not even-handed, but it’s way different than it ever was before.

And then you see at the public level, particularly among young people, especially among young Jews where there’s been a massive transformation of public opinion. In the African American community, among a whole range of constituents within the United States body politic if you will, you see these massive changes underway in how people come to understand the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. And what’s different now, we know that changing public opinion by itself doesn’t change policy— US democracy doesn’t work that well— but it is a necessary precondition before you can change policy. So one of the things that we need to be looking at, and I think this is one of the lessons from the mobilization that did go forward to try and stop this resolution, is that we need to be moving in a broader direction.

The fact is that there are center-left organizations and even centrist organizations that we’ve never really approached in a serious way about taking up the question of the legitimacy of Palestinian rights, who I believe right now are ready to do so. Organizations that are on the progressive side of things, but are not part of the self-defined Left where the real work has gone on, wonderful powerful work has gone on, and continues to go on within the Palestine solidarity movement, the Palestinian rights movement, that are making links to the most progressive sectors of the black freedom movement, of the immigrant rights movement, of others. But what if we expanded that to say that organizations like the National Organization for Women, or the Sierra Club, or the NAACP, that all of these are organizations where people within them— if not yet the official leadership bodies— are ready to take up the legitimacy of Palestinian rights? I think that we would be moving even faster to change that political discourse in this particular political moment, and that’s a very exciting prospect ahead.

GREG WILPERT Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Phyllis Bennis, Fellow and Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. And also, she’ll have an article coming out on this very issue in The Nation very soon. Thanks again, Phyllis, for having joined us today.

PHYLLIS BENNIS Thank you, Greg. It’s been a pleasure.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.