Quarterly Updates for (16 Aug 2017 — 15 Nov 2017)

Trump’s Ambassador on Settlements

U.S. amb. to Israel Friedman and his explicit pro-settlement views threatened to undermine Pres. Trump’s relationship with the Palestinians and his broader peace initiative in 9/2017. When Friedman described Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land as “alleged” in an interview with the Jerusalem Post on 9/1, it threw into question the Trump admin.’s position on a key aspect of the PalestinianIsraeli conflict, and drew harsh criticism from the Palestinians. The controversy grew until a State Dept. spokesperson clarified (9/7) that Friedman’s comments “do not represent a shift in U.S. policy.” Later in the mo., however, Friedman made (9/28) another egregious assertion about the “alleged” occupation in an interview with the Israeli television channel, Walla. “I think the settlements are part of Israel,” he said. “The existing borders, the 1967 borders, were viewed by everybody as not secure, so Israel would retain a meaningful portion of the West Bank, and it would return that which it didn’t need for peace and security. So, there was always supposed to be some notion of expansion into the West Bank, but not necessarily expansion into the entire West Bank.” Hours later, a State Dept. spokesperson disavowed Friedman again. “His comments—and I want to be crystal clear about this—should not be read as a way to prejudge the outcome of any negotiations that the U.S. would have with the Israelis and the Palestinians.” By the end of the quarter, however, it was reported that Trump had appointed Friedman to the small group in charge of drafting his plan for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis (see “The Trump Initiative” above).

Legislative Backlash against BDS

The highest-profile battles over the growing BDS movement primarily played out at state and municipal levels this quarter. In Maryland, where activists defeated anti-BDS proposals in the state legislature in 2015, 2016, and earlier this year, Gov. Larry Hogan signed (10/23) an executive order barring the state from entering into contracts with companies unless they certified in writing that they were not engaged in a boycott of Israel. He also called on the trustees of the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System to divest from any companies with holdings in entities that participate in BDS. “The goals of [the BDS] movement run counter to the strong economic relationship that Maryland has sustained with our friends and partners in Israel,” Hogan said (10/23). The next week, Wisconsin gov. Scott Walker followed suit (10/27), signing an executive order barring state agencies from contracting with companies that boycott Israel. With Walker’s order, Wisconsin became the 24th state with an anti-BDS law or executive order on the books.

Since the legislative crackdown on BDS began in 2014, activists have argued that the measures being used against individuals and entities participating in BDS infringe on the First Amendment right to free speech (e.g., the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] filed a lawsuit challenging the new anti-BDS law in Kansas on 10/11). However, broader public conversations over how these measures actually work were relatively infrequent until this quarter, when controversy broke out in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, a massive storm that devastated Houston in late 8/2017.

Starting on 10/20, dozens of U.S. media outlets picked up on the story that the city of Dickinson, a suburb of Houston, required hurricane victims applying for emergency relief grants to sign a waiver stating that they do not support boycotts of Israel. City officials explained that the following provision was added to the application forms to accommodate Texas’s new anti-BDS law, which passed on 5/2/2017 (see JPS 47 [4]): “By executing this Agreement below, the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.” The ACLU was quick to condemn the move. “The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to boycott, and the govt. cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression,” said the organization’s Texas Legal Dir. Andre Segura (10/20). Phil King, the Texas state legislator who spearheaded the anti-BDS legislation, said (10/21) that Dickinson officials were likely misreading the law, which barred state entities from contracting with businesses that boycott Israel. After 4 days of outcry and debate over the rights of BDS activists, the Dickinson City Council voted (10/24) to remove the anti-BDS requirement from the application.

Likewise, a development in the race for the governorship of Illinois threw the debate over BDS into the spotlight once again. On 9/6, Democratic candidate and State Sen. Daniel Biss announced that he had made the “difficult” decision to drop Chicago alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa from his ticket over his support for BDS. “While I was honored to be chosen as Sen. Daniel Biss’s gubernatorial running mate, it became clear over the past few days that while we share a total commitment to peace, security, and statehood for the Israeli and Palestinian people, and both oppose pursuing BDS at the state level, the difference of opinion we have on the role the BDS movement plays at the federal level would make it impossible to continue moving forward as a ticket,” Ramirez-Rosa wrote (9/6) on Facebook. Biss had chosen Ramirez-Rosa, a Bernie Sanders delegate in 2016 and a mbr. of the Democratic Socialists of America, as his running mate only a week earlier, and the selection galvanized progressives in Chicago. Over the course of that week, however, pro-Israel and anti-BDS forces rallied against Ramirez-Rosa. On 9/3, for example, Illinois congressman Brad Schneider withdrew his support from the Biss campaign over Ramirez-Rosa’s support for the BDS movement.

Aid to Egypt

Since the ouster of Egyptian pres. Hosni Mubarak in 2011, U.S. aid to Egypt has been in flux. This quarter, as Congress was deliberating 2018 humanitarian and economic aid to Cairo, the Trump admin. took its first step toward establishing its position on the issue. On 8/22, 2 U.S. sources said the Trump admin. had decided to withhold approximately $290 m. in aid because the Egyptian govt. had failed to make adequate progress on democratic reforms ($195 m. was reportedly suspended, while $95.7 m. was cut altogether). The decision was partly a response to Egyptian pres. al-Sisi’s decision to approve a law imposing additional restrictions on NGOs on 5/30/2017, they said.

The decision led to a brief period of tension between Egypt and the U.S. On 8/23, the Egyptian govt. canceled a meeting between Egyptian FM Sameh Shoukry and Kushner, Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, who was in Cairo for talks on the Trump peace initiative. “Egypt sees [the aid reduction] as reflecting poor judgment of the strategic relationship that ties the 2 countries over long decades and as adopting a view that lacks an accurate understanding of the importance of supporting Egypt’s stability,” the Foreign Ministry in Cairo stated (8/23). However, Kushner still met with al-Sisi later that day, and Trump personally called al-Sisi the next day to reaffirm “the strength and friendship between Egypt and the U.S.,” according to a statement from al-Sisi’s office.

The next mo., the tension was all but gone. On the sidelines of the UNGA in New York, Trump had a friendly meeting with al-Sisi on 9/20 and said he would “consider” unfreezing the $195 m. At the same time, a White House official said (9/20) that $20 m. of withheld payment to Egypt was redirected to the PA for wastewater projects.