How EU-US trade deal could thwart “boycott Israel” campaign

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The Electronic Intifada | 19 February 2015

Opinion/Editorial
How EU-US trade deal could thwart “boycott Israel” campaign

Ryvka Barnard and John Hilary

Two members of the US Congress have introduced a bill that would turn a giant trade deal between the EU and US into a devastating weapon against the people of Palestine and all those seeking justice alongside them. Together with the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that is currently under negotiation, the proposed bill would compel all 28 EU member states to crack down on European groups participating in the growing movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

In order to combat the increasing isolation of Israel in global public opinion, European governments would effectively be turned into police agents for the US state.

The proposed US-Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act presented to Congress on 10 February seeks to make any trade deal with Brussels conditional on the EU’s willingness to stop European governments, organizations or individuals engaging in BDS actions designed to hold Israel accountable for its responsibilities under international law.

The bill is explicitly framed as an attack on the BDS movement, a grassroots global movement responding to the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society asking people of conscience around the world to launch boycotts, divest from and impose sanctions on Israel until it recognizes Palestinian rights in full compliance with international law. The BDS movement has grown enormously since it was first launched, winning endorsement from trade unions and churches, causing multinationals such as G4S and Veolia to lose many contracts with public authorities around the world because of their involvement in Israeli projects that violate Palestinian human rights, and persuading major banks and pension funds to divest.

Extending repression

With its increasing successes, the BDS movement has been subject to an array of legal and political attacks, particularly in the US, Australia and in Israel itself. The new bill now before Congress is an attempt to extend this political repression deep into Europe too, using the TTIP negotiations as a vehicle.

Yet the EU-US negotiations are already highly controversial in Europe, where TTIP is widely regarded as a bid to give corporations an unprecedented level of power. News that the deal will also prohibit BDS campaigns in solidarity with the Palestinian people will add to the conviction that the US wants to use TTIP to undermine European democracy for its own geostrategic and economic purposes.

The TTIP negotiations were launched in summer 2013, and officials still hope to conclude a deal before the end of Barack Obama’s presidency.

TTIP is not a traditional trade agreement aimed at reducing border tariffs, since these are already at minimal levels between the EU and US. Instead, TTIP is focused on dismantling the “barriers” to trade that exist behind the border, namely the social standards, labor rights and environmental regulations that prevent transnational corporations from maximizing their profits when they trade or invest across the Atlantic.

Affront to democracy

In an additional affront to democracy, TTIP would introduce new powers for foreign corporations to bypass domestic courts and sue governments for potential loss of profits, in a parallel judicial system available to them alone.

For these and many other reasons, there is a massive movement of opposition to TTIP across the whole of Europe, and increasingly in the US. Environmental activists have made common cause with trade unions, food safety campaigners, anti-fracking activists and digital rights groups to oppose the deal, and there are now national No TTIP platforms coordinating actions at every level.

Campaigners have called for a global day of action against TTIP and other free trade agreements on 18 April, with hundreds of thousands expected to take part. Officials promoting the deal have acknowledged that they are losing the public debate.

The bill was proposed by a pair of US Congressmen from the two dominant American political parties. In a statement, Peter Roskam (Republican) and Juan Vargas (Democrat) make no secret of the fact that the bill is designed to “counter the BDS movement against Israel and strengthen the US-Israel economic relationship.” They further state that the bill “will ensure that American free trade partners never engage in this harmful and illegitimate political protest against Israel, while also protecting US companies from foreign lawsuits targeting their associations with Israel.”

Beyond these two Congressmen, the bill was supported with aletter by Israel’s former ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.

Now an Israeli electoral candidate, Oren has dedicated a great deal of time in recent years to raging against the BDS movement. This follows a pattern of Israeli government officials teaming up with American pro-Israel organizations and registered lobby groups attempting to use legal and governmental tools to attack the BDS movement and muzzle critics of Israel’s apartheid policies.

These tactics have been less effective in Europe, hence the proposed bill’s attempts to extend this influence into the EU.

Green light for surveillance?

The bill calls for surveillance and information-gathering on “politically motivated acts of boycott, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel.” A report based on this surveillance would be delivered to Congress within the first six months after enacting the bill.

The content of this report is specified to include information on “decisions by foreign persons, including corporate entities and state-affiliated financial institutions, that limit or prohibit economic relations with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.”

Given the US’ track record of surveillance of its own citizens, as well as other people around the world, it is safe to assume that this is another way to “legalize” information-gathering for business and political strategy. If the bill was passed and the TTIP negotiations were concluded, this would give a green light to US surveillance of individual citizens, activist groups, charities, companies and even governments in Europe.

The bill specifies its targets as any person, organization or entity that prohibits or otherwise decides against “doing business with Israel, with Israeli entities, or in Israeli-controlled territories.” This grants immunity from legal prosecution or even investigation to all types of Israeli businesses, including those involved in the production and trade of arms used in war crimes against the civilian population in Gaza. It also lets the scores of businesses operating in Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank to continue their operations not only unrestrained, but even immune from questioning or critique.

This would mean that governments, campaigning organizations and individuals in the US and Europe would be barred from investigating allegations of war crimes or firms active in Israel’s settlements.

The bill makes frequent mention of the Arab League boycott of Israel, and notes how the US has used previous trade treaties to undermine solidarity actions against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. It is known that the US government used its free trade agreements with Egypt and Jordan to this end, granting exports from their industrial zones duty-free access to the US market on the strict condition that they include Israeli inputs.

The new bill boasts that the US used its free trade agreements with Bahrain and Oman to stop those countries participating in the Arab League boycott, and that the US government had also made Saudi Arabia’s membership of the World Trade Organization conditional upon it no longer enforcing some elements of the boycott.

The introduction of this new anti-BDS bill in the context of the TTIP negotiations is a clear statement that anyone entering into trade agreements with the US must expect to forfeit their right to express solidarity with the Palestinian people. The anti-BDS bill would break any last bonds of accountability between governments and their citizens, preventing citizens from holding their governments responsible for their policies at home and abroad.

The anti-BDS bill must be opposed in the strongest terms, just as TTIP must also be rejected outright.

Ryvka Barnard is senior campaigns officer and John Hilary is executive director of War on Want.