Without much debate or fanfare, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee both approved amendments to a bill late last month that fly in the face of longstanding U.S. policy and international law. 

The nearly identical Senate and House bills, both known as the Trade Promotion Authority bill, aim to give President Obama “fast track” authority to sign two trade agreements – one with the European Union and the other with 11 Pacific Rim countries. But amendments to both bills now link negotiations with Europe to a different issue entirely: trade with Israel and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.  

ADVERTISEMENT

The amendment to the House bill, approved on April 23, makes it a “principal negotiating objective” of the United States to discourage “politically motivated” economic actions against “Israel or Israeli-controlled territory.” This means that the president is mandated to use U.S. economic leverage to protect trade not only with Israel—a longstanding U.S. objective—but also with its illegal West Bank settlements. The previous day, the Senate Finance Committee approved a similar amendment, although the text has not been made public. These amendments would reverse longstanding official U.S. policy not to actively protect the settlement economy.  

The U.S., like the EU and virtually every other nation, does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Every U.S. administration since 1967 has opposed settlements there, which violate the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition against transferring one’s civilians into occupied territory. 

The House and Senate amendments’ sponsors promote their initiative as striking a blow to those abroad who call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.  Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), the amendment’s Democratic co-sponsor, praised the legislation as a means to counter “efforts that threaten Israel’s existence.” In the same news release, Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), the amendment’s main Republican co-sponsor in the House, hailed the amendment as a “historic win” against a campaign of “economic warfare” that is “solely dedicated to the delegitimization and isolation of our ally Israel.”  

However, the European Union seeks to restrict trade not with Israel but with Israeli settlements. This distinction is crucial. The EU policies that the amendments seek to counter are grounded in international law—and are aligned with current U.S. laws and policies. By effectively equating doing business with Israel with doing business with its illegal settlements – and seeking to punish Europe for trying to avoid complicity with that illegal enterprise – the U.S. undermines the Geneva Conventions, needlessly harms its important relationship with the EU, and damages its already threadbare credibility as a neutral mediator between Israelis and Palestinians.

The EU bans the import from settlements of organic produce, as well as animal products such as dairy, eggs, and poultry, on the ground that Israel, lacking sovereignty over the territories, does not have the legitimate authority to issue organic certificates or conduct health inspections there. Many EU member countries are urging additional measures affecting trade with settlements: On April 16, foreign ministers for 16 EU countries signed a letter in support of a labeling requirement that would prevent Israel from falsely identifying settlement goods as if they were “Made in Israel.”  

In fact, the EU ministers’ proposed labelling requirement appears to be consistent with U.S. state labeling laws: Last month, an Israeli settlement company began labeling its products sold in Oregon as “Made in the West Bank” in response to a complaint filed with the Oregon Department of Justice under the state’s Fair Trade Practices Act.   

Rather than protect Israel, the Cardin and Roskam amendments will push U.S. trade negotiators to leverage the country’s considerable economic weight to protect settlements that Israel has built in disregard of international law and longstanding U.S. policy. Instead of protecting that illegality, the U.S. should follow the EU’s example and implement its own policy distancing itself from Israeli settlements.

Saadoun is the Leonard H. Sandler fellow at Human Rights Watch.