Dean Schwartz: Israeli-occupied territories: Legislature musn't overreach on Mideast boycott

A bill would require vendors with the state not to engage in boycotts of Israel, but it is misdirected.

By Eric Schwartz
January 25, 2017 — 11:06pm

The Minnesota Legislature may soon consider enacting a proposal on Israel and territory it holds under the law of belligerent occupation. The legislation would undermine prospects for a two-state solution in the Middle East, compromise respect for the rule of law and undermine the security interests of Israel.

It’s understandable that Minnesota legislators might, at first glance, want to support this misdirected piece of legislation, which would require that vendors with Minnesota state contracts not engage in a boycott of Israel.

Indeed, on these pages last year, I myself condemned the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its effort to pressure companies not to do business with Israel (“Student demands to divest from Israel go too far,” Feb. 29). I noted that the boycott movement sought to challenge the very legitimacy of a democratic and Jewish state in the Middle East. I urged the University of Minnesota Student Association to reject a BDS-sponsored resolution calling on the university to divest from certain corporations doing business with Israel.

So if that was my position, why am I now so opposed to the proposed legislative measure, and why am I so convinced it will have negative implications for Israel and for the prospects for a two-state solution?

The reason is simple. The legislation applies not only to Israel, but also to “Israeli-controlled territories,” and is part of a troubling national effort among some advocacy organizations — an effort that is controversial within the U.S. Jewish community — to create the fait accompli of an Israel that effectively includes territories seized in the Six Day War in 1967. These territories should be the subject of negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Moreover, the legislation would make Minnesota legislators guardians of a belligerent occupation, as it would impose punishment on those who might support economic pressure that is directed not at Israel, but at the occupation and activities in occupied territory. Whatever one’s view of such pressure, this is not an appropriate role for the Minnesota Legislature.

Supporters of Israel should be concerned about this legislation for another reason: It undermines efforts to combat the BDS movement worldwide. I and others have argued that the BDS movement must be opposed because it challenges the idea that there can be a democratic and Jewish state in the Middle East that can live side by side with a Palestinian state. Measures that endorse or accept an Israel that includes occupied territory undermine the possibility of such a two-state solution, and hand the BDS movement its argument on a silver platter.

Proponents of this unfortunate Minnesota legislation will also contend that it is consistent with the intent of the U.S. Congress which, in 2016 trade legislation, enacted an anti-BDS provision that also extends its coverage to “Israeli-controlled territories.” But that legislation stands in stark contrast to five decades of U.S. policy, in which Democratic and Republican administrations have expressed firm opposition to congressional and other measures that would impact the status of occupied territory and interfere in the president’s authority to conduct foreign policy.

When President Obama signed the trade legislation last year, he stated his strong opposition to boycotts of Israel, but added that “certain provisions of this act, by conflating Israel and ‘Israel-controlled territories,’ are contrary to longstanding bipartisan United States policy, including with regard to treatment of settlements.” He noted that he would negotiate “in a manner that does not interfere with my constitutional authority to conduct diplomacy.”

The new presidential administration may shortly change all that, and proponents of this legislation might argue that if President Trump effectively supports Israeli sovereignty over occupied territories, the Minnesota Legislature ought to do so as well.

But that is nonsense. The fact that our federal government might adopt a policy that is inimical to the interests of both the long-term security of Israel and respect for human rights is hardly a reason it should be endorsed by those who are friends and supporters of Israel.

Of course, it is very important that supporters of Israel strongly oppose the BDS movement, a movement that goes well beyond seeking to pressure Israel for its policies in the occupied territories and challenges the very legitimacy of Israel. But by endorsing strengthened Israeli control over land that is legally considered occupied territory, this blunt legislative measure goes too far and is counterproductive.

If Minnesota’s legislators want to play a helpful role in supporting both Israel and a two-state solution, they should go back to the drawing board and develop a proposal more conducive to human rights, respect for the rule of law and the long term security of Israel.

Eric Schwartz is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration. The opinions expressed are his own.
Crossposted from Humphrey Herald

Israeli-Occupied Territories: Legislature Mustn’t Overreach on Mideast Boycott

Dean Eric Schwartz wrote this commentary for the Star Tribune, in which he argues a bill in the Minnesota Legislature would undermine prospects for a two-state solution in the Middle East, compromise respect for the rule of law, and undermine the security interests of Israel.
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