Tuesday, when labor and environmental advocates who oppose the fast track Trade Promotion Authority breathed a sigh of relief as the Senate blocked the controversial trade legislation for now, advocates for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine joined them.  

In late April, Congressional committees in the House and Senate passed a pair of little-noticed amendments to the controversial Trade Promotion Authority ‘Fast-Track’ legislation that would legislate support for Israel’s illegal settlements and would impede efforts to apply non-violent pressure on Israel to change its discriminatory policies towards Palestinians.   

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Congressional Democrats voted Tuesday to block the controversial ‘Fast-Track’ Trade Promotion Authority that would strip Congress of the power to amend trade deals. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated by the White House are opposed by labor and environmental groups because of the detrimental effect that they are likely to have on U.S. workers and environmental regulations. With the addition of the amendments relating to Israel, not only would damaging trade deals be negotiated in near secrecy without Congressional oversight, but U.S. trade policy would in future include combating Palestinian human rights advocacy and protecting Israel’s illegal settlements. 

The proposed legislation would erase the distinction between Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies, effectively upending longstanding U.S. policy in the region. As J.J. Goldberg, writing for the Jewish Daily Forward, noted, “This week’s congressional committee measures appear to be the first-ever formal step toward U.S. government recognition of the settlements’ legitimacy. None of the Capitol Hill sources contacted appeared to be aware of the explosive significance of the ‘territories under the control of Israel’ clause.”  

The addition of these amendments to the ‘Fast Track’ legislation has not yet received sufficient attention, given the potential of the legislation to significantly shift longstanding U.S. policy towards the settlements. The language sets a dangerous precedent by legislating support for the nearly 50-year Israeli occupation, countering official U.S. policy of opposing the settlements as illegitimate and the international consensus which regards them as illegal. 

The language further calls for U.S. negotiators to make discouraging companies from abiding by human rights boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel one of the "principal U.S. trade negotiating objectives.” This would put a chilling effect on efforts to use non-violent tactics including boycott, divestment and sanctions as tools to advance a movement for justice, equality and human rights. Boycotts, a constitutionally protected form of free political speech, have long been a tactic used to achieve justice through social change. Ironically, a separate amendment to the bill urges negotiators to make support for human rights another principal objective of trade talks. As applied to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently under negotiation, this legislation would target efforts in the European Union to uphold international law by boycotting products produced in illegally occupied territory.  

Meanwhile, similar efforts to legislate against efforts to use boycotts as a political tool to pressure Israel to change its policies towards Palestinians have passed at the state level in Tennessee and Indiana, and are moving forward in the Illinois legislature.  

The Palestinian-led movement for justice, equality, and human rights is a rapidly growing, global movement to apply non-violent pressure through boycott, divestment and sanctions to hold Israel accountable to its commitments under international law. Modeled on the tactics that contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa, the movement was initiated by a call in 2005 from Palestinian civil society groups, which asked people of conscience to put pressure on the government of Israel until it ends its military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the siege of the Gaza Strip, dismantles the separation wall, treats Palestinian citizens of Israel with full dignity and equality, and respects the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

While the wave of efforts to legislate against non-violent advocacy for Palestinian rights is deeply concerning for both free speech and human rights advocates, it is also an indicator of the growing power of these tactics to put pressure on Israel to change. The fact that the U.S. Congress is pushing back against the efforts of international civil society to uplift the Palestinian struggle for freedom and equality is a clear sign of the growing success of a grassroots movement for justice.

Dann is the media coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace.