Although U.S. pres. Trump was elected in part on his promise to strengthen relations with Israel, his unorthodox leadership style created a diplomatic incident at the very beginning of the quarter that called U.S.- Israeli intelligence sharing into question and undermined Trump’s pro-Israel bona fides.
In a 5/10 meeting with Russia’s amb. to the UN Sergey Kislyak and FM Lavrov at the White House, Trump boasted about classified intelligence from an ally, disclosing key details that are thought to have enabled the Russians to figure out the source (Washington Post, 5/15). Trump’s disclosure galvanized the Democratic Party, who favored a more antagonistic stance toward Russia and pointed out that the intelligencegathering network of the ally in question was likely compromised. The day after the story broke, current and former U.S. officials identified (5/16) said ally as Israel. Trump then tweeted (5/17) that he had the “absolute right” to share any information relevant to the fight against terrorism, while Israel’s amb. to the U.S., Ron Dermer, insisted (5/17) that “Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.S. and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under [Trump].”
In private, however, Israeli officials were clearly concerned about Trump’s disclosure. One source said (5/17) that Israel should reassess what information it passes to the U.S., adding, “We can’t hand over our crown jewels.” According to a U.S. defense official (5/19), Israeli intelligence were furious that Trump may have compromised a “vital source of information on [ISIS] and possibly Iran.” Meanwhile, Dermer and other Israeli officials reportedly met with some of their U.S. counterparts on 5/16 to discuss the implications of the leak, with the goal of resolving the issue before Trump’s arrival in Israel on 5/22.
Although the outcome of those talks was never made public, Israeli DM Lieberman said (5/24) that Israel made a “spot repair” to its intelligence-sharing systems with the U.S., effectively confirming that Israel was the source of the intelligence in question and that Trump’s disclosure had compromised Israeli assets. “Everything we needed to work out with our friends in the U.S., we did,” he added. “We looked into it and cleared the air on the entire issue, and there is no need to go on.”
Conservatives in the U.S. again questioned the Trump admin.’s dedication to Israel when the State Dept. published its annual report on global terrorism on 7/19. The section on Israel and the oPt noted that Israel had been “a committed counterterrorism partner” in 2016 and that it “again faced terrorist threats from Iranian-support [sic] groups,” as well as Hamas and PIJ. However, critics took issue with the report, citing the Israeli settlements and a “lack of hope” as the motivating factors for Palestinians’ so-called acts of terror (the Israeli govt. maintained that PA incitement was a major motivator for such acts). Typifying their complaints, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) wrote (7/25) to Secy. of State Tillerson arguing that there were “numerous mischaracterizations” in the report and asked him to amend them. “At the highest level, the PA leadership directly incites, rewards, and, in some cases, carries out terrorist attacks against innocent Israelis,” Roskam wrote, unabashedly adopting the Israeli govt. position. The pres. of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, then called (7/24) on Trump to fire Tillerson. “I don’t remember last year’s report, but when Obama was in the White House you almost expected the State Dept. to put out anti-Israel reports like this one. I didn’t think they would have the chutzpah to do it under Trump.”
Legislative Backlash against BDS
The legislative campaign to undermine the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement suffered a setback this quarter in the debate over a bill introduced in Congress last quarter: the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (see S. 720 and H.R. 1697 of 3/23/2017). This bill would amend the 1979 Export Administration Act of 1979 (prohibiting U.S. persons from complying with or supporting a foreign boycott against a U.S. ally) to include boycotts against Israel and Israeli businesses called for by international institutions, such as the EU or UN, and specifically businesses operating in the settlements in the oPt. Furthermore, the bill would block U.S. persons from providing or requesting information on any person’s business relationship with Israel, effectively prohibiting them from complying with a “blacklist” of companies doing business in Israel’s settlements established by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The blacklist had been approved in 3/2016 and was being implemented this quarter (see JPS 45 ). By 7/2017, the bill’s backers had collected a bipartisan group of 45 cosponsors in the Senate and 240 in the House of Representatives, and the bill had a good chance of passing.
That changed on 7/17, however, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent individual letters to mbrs. of the House of Representatives, urging them to oppose the bill on the grounds that it would “punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs.” The ACLU letter also pointed out that any violations of the bill would be punishable by civil and criminal penalties of up to $1 m. and 20 years in prison. The liberal Zionist advocacy group J Street followed suit the next day, prompting the Senate version’s original sponsors, Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rob Portman (R-OH), to publish (7/21) an open letter defending the bill. “Nothing in the bill restricts constitutionally protected free speech or limits criticism of Israel and its policies,” the letter read. “Instead, it is narrowly targeted at commercial activity and is based on current law that has been constitutionally upheld.” Cardin also told (7/25) the Intercept that the ACLU’s interpretation of the penalties in the bill was incorrect. “We thought we only dealt with civil penalties, not criminal penalties,” he said. “But if that’s not clear, we’re willing to deal with these issues.” Meanwhile, more than a dozen Democrats in the Senate and House were reconsidering their support for the bill, according to 2 congressional staffers on 7/24. “The language in the bill is confusing and doesn’t clearly state what Cardin and Portman wrote in their [7/21] letter,” one staffer added. “It wouldn’t surprise me if a large number of Democrats will ask to amend this, making it much clearer that citizens expressing support for boycotts will not be punished for their political opinion.”
In a rare move, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), one of the original cosponsors of the Senate version of the bill, did just that. After pro-Palestinian activist groups mobilized and questioned her at several town hall meetings in late 7/2017, she stated (7/31) that she could not support the bill unless changes were made to ensure free speech protections. On 8/1, she formally withdrew her sponsorship. With Gillibrand considered a potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2020, her defection was considered to have dealt a major blow to the bill’s chances. (Throughout the affair, Gillibrand reaffirmed her strong opposition to the BDS movement in general, indicating that the broader crackdown was likely to continue unabated.)
The legislative campaign to undermine BDS continued apace outside Washington. On 5/18, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the governors of all 50 states had signed onto a pledge, organized by the American Jewish Comm., to oppose BDS. In addition, Nevada (6/2), Kansas (6/16), and North Carolina (7/27) became the 20th, 21st, and 22d states to put anti-BDS laws or executive orders on their states’ books. Each of the new laws barred state entities from doing business with companies that engage in boycotts of Israel.