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Sorry AIPAC, but Washington has given BDS a boost

Nothing that Israel does to stop the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign seems to be working, not even in Washington, where support for Israel is often taken for granted. President Barack Obama's decision to sign into law a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) renewal bill this week was, at first glance, a victory for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its die-hard backers in Congress; but a victory it was not.

The purpose of the TPA bill was to give the president greater negotiating powers to "fast track" trade deals, and access new trading partners in the international marketplace. The bill was, however, a victim of the long-drawn-out system of congressional debate, which allowed other bits of legislation to be added before its final adoption. The pro-Israel lobby had secured an amendment to the trade law which obliged the US government to discourage EU countries from endorsing the fast growing BDS movement in Europe.

As usual, the devil was in the detail. One curious aspect of the amendment referred not only to commercial activity with the State of Israel but also "to Israeli-controlled territories". This latter phrase was especially problematic because it was an obvious reference to the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. It implied that the US government supports the clearly illegal settlements.

As soon as the alarm bells about this started to ring, the State Department went into overdrive, issuing a clarification a day after Obama had signed the bill. While affirming US opposition to boycotts of Israel, spokesman John Kirby said a provision of the bill conflated "Israel" and "Israeli-controlled territories". He then emphasised that, just like every other administration since 1967, the Obama administration opposes Israeli settlement activity beyond the 1949 Armistice (the "Green") Line.

Lobbying to get US support for Israel in the face of BDS is one thing, but using US legislation to try to legitimise Israeli settlements is quite another. The State Department was right, therefore, to set the record straight and draw a line under the matter. On this occasion the pro-Israel lobby had, in the words of Israel's Haaretz newspaper, bitten off more than it could chew.

What happened in Washington this week must serve as a lesson to the pro-Israel lobby, wherever it may operate; unreasonable and over-zealous advocacy on behalf of Israel can backfire and become counter-productive.

For example, a few weeks ago the lobby in Britain pressured the University of Southampton to cancel an international academic conference on Palestine on the pretext that some of the proposed speakers hold anti-Semitic views. Although the cancellation did seem like a victory at the time, the fact that the university was drawn into an acrimonious stand-off with some of its academic staff, which eventually ended up in the High Court, only served to highlight the intellectual bankruptcy of Israel's supporters. By resorting to such methods to stifle debate and silence critics they only made the Palestinian case more appealing and popular.

Back in America, meanwhile, the announcement by the United Church of Christ (UCC) that it is going to divest from companies operating in the occupied West Bank coincided with this week's amendment of the TPA bill and the subsequent State Department disavowal of the conflation of Israel with the territories it "controls", the lobby's euphemism for "occupies and colonises".

The TPA bill development was not the first chink in the wall of Israeli immunity in Washington. Last month, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of the government against the family of one Menachem Zivotofsky, who had taken legal action to get the boy's birthplace listed on official documents as "Jerusalem, Israel". In effect, the court ruling was a resounding rejection of Israel's claim to the occupied city. This week's intervention by the State Department constitutes another blow to Israel's anti-BDS campaign by Washington with its refusal to defend illegal settlements or criminalise the boycott against them.

To some observers, these developments may be tentative baby steps, but in the grand scheme of the global struggle against Israeli apartheid they are important because the Americans, significantly, are finally smelling the coffee.

Decades of appeasement have resulted in irreparable damage to their country's image, interests and influence in the Middle East. The age of full spectrum hegemony in this region is over. There was a time when an American bark was enough to bring recalcitrant regional states into line. That is no longer the case. Instead, America has, for example, been led down a path of never-ending negotiations by Iran over its nuclear programme. In a way, the Americans are being given a taste of their own medicine, which has been administered to the Palestinians since the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991.

The moral is simple; if you uphold the law and practice what you preach you will, at the very least, earn respect and influence. This is why Washington has more or less declared its tacit support for the BDS campaign against Israel's illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. Far from outlawing BDS, as the lobbyists proclaim, Washington has given the campaign a very welcome boost.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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