U.S. president Trump’s administration was in flux this quarter, with several top officials involved in issues related to the PalestinianIsraeli conflict losing either their jobs or access to classified information. Although these changes did not appear to have any immediate effect on the administration’s overall peace initiative, they collectively indicated the situation was not one of Trump’s priorities.
At the top of the list, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Kushner was stripped of his top-secret security clearance in late 2/2018. According to a 2/27 report in the Washington Post, the downgrade came, in part, after National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster learned that officials in at least four other countries, including Israel and the United Arab Emirates, had private discussions about ways they could influence Kushner using information about his various business entanglements, debt, and lack of experience. One former White House official indicated that there was concern that Kushner was “naïve and being tricked” in the conversations he was having with foreign officials outside standard National Security Council processes. Kushner was leading the administration’s Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative, and it was unclear how the downgrade would affect his work in that area, if at all. He reportedly continued work on the administration’s peace plan throughout the quarter, alongside U.S. ambassador to Israel Friedman and Special Representative Greenblatt, and he attended the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on 5/14.
Apart from Kushner’s downgrade, Trump replaced Secretary of State Tillerson with Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo and McMaster with former U.S. ambassador to the UN and Fox News pundit John Bolton in 3/2018. Both Pompeo and Bolton are known as hawks on Iran, and it was frequently pointed out that they had greatly influenced Trump’s 5/8 decision to pull the United States out of the JCPOA (see “Iran” above). Bolton, in particular, advocated for bombing Iran instead of signing onto the deal in the first place. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on 1/15/2018, he called for “ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its fortieth anniversary” in 2/2019. The Trump administration “has joined with extremist Zionists, fundamentalist Christians and white racists,” PLO Executive Committee member Ashrawi commented (3/22) on Bolton’s hiring. “This man has a long history of hostility to Palestinians, dating to when he was at the UN, where he was protecting Israeli immunity,” she said. “All this will lead to a devastating reality for Palestine and the region.” Pompeo was less well known to the Palestinians, but he drew their ire before the quarter ended. During a three-day trip to the Middle East on 4/28–30, he repeatedly called on the Palestinians to reengage with the U.S. peace initiative. He also fielded numerous questions about Israel’s brutal response to the Great March of Return protests in Gaza. “We do believe the Israelis have a right to defend themselves and we’re fully supportive of that,” he said (4/30), after meeting with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu.
Legislative Crackdown on BDS
The bipartisan campaign to undermine and marginalize the BDS movement confronted new challenges this quarter. At the same time, however, new anti-BDS measures advanced in both the U.S. Congress and the Kansas state legislature.
Ahead of the annual AIPAC conference in early 3/2018, senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rob Portman (R-OH) unveiled a new draft of their Israel Anti-Boycott Act on 3/3. It became the main vehicle for anti-BDS sentiments in Congress this quarter, reviving a debate over Israel boycotts and the First Amendment. Cardin and Portman introduced the initial draft of the legislation alongside Rep. Peter Roskam’s (R-IL) identical companion measure in the House on 3/23/2017 (see JPS 46  and 47 ). It would have prohibited U.S. persons from supporting any boycott of a U.S. ally and specifically any boycott requested, fostered, or imposed by an international organization against Israel, inter alia (see S. 720 and H.R. 1697 of 3/23/2017 at congressionalmonitor.org). The measure quickly attracted more than 40 cosponsors in the Senate and more than 200 in the House, and for a time it was seen as having a good chance of passing into law. That progress slowed to a halt after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and numerous Palestinian solidarity activists started campaigning against the bill on the grounds that it would infringe on free speech. After they persuaded one senator, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), to rescind her cosponsorship, Cardin and Portman suspended work on the bill.
When Cardin and Portman offered up their new version of the bill on 3/3, they put out a press release clarifying their new position. “We have welcomed the public discussions that have been essential in focusing this bipartisan legislation in such a way that definitively upholds the rights of individual Americans while clarifying decades-old legislation,” Cardin said. “I am confident this bill strikes the right balance between protecting U.S. businesses and our Israeli allies from unfair targeting by international organization [sic], while upholding America’s commitment to free speech and individual liberty,” Portman added. They insisted that the new text should not be seen as infringing on anyone’s right to free speech and said that the new text made clear that a “person’s noncommercial speech or other noncommercial expressive activity” could not be “used as evidence to prove a violation.” The ACLU, however, came out (3/6) against the measure again. Noting “several significant improvements,” the ACLU stated that “the bill’s fundamental purpose violates the First Amendment.” There was no further action on the bill in Congress.
Outside Washington, both sides of the BDS fight claimed victories this quarter. After a federal judge blocked (1/30) enforcement of the anti-BDS law that Kansas passed on 6/17/2017, the state house passed a new version of the measure on 3/26. The bill, which would bar the state from contracting with companies engaged in a boycott of Israel, then came up against unexpected opposition in the state senate. One Republican senator in particular, Rob Schaaf, reportedly pledged to filibuster any effort to bring it up for a vote (St. Louis Jewish Light, 5/9).
Four months after the ACLU filed the first legal challenge to Arizona’s new anti-BDS law in 12/2017 (see JPS 47 ), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed (3/2) a similar lawsuit against Arizona State University (ASU), the Arizona Board of Regents, and Arizona’s attorney general. The law passed during the first wave of anti-BDS legislation in 3/2016 (see JPS 45 ), and it required all state contractors to certify that they were not engaged in a boycott of Israel. CAIR’s lawsuit stemmed from a recent incident at ASU, where the founder of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) and Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian refused to sign a contract, prior to a scheduled appearance at a campus event, stipulating that he did not boycott Israel. ASU’s administrators later sent him a clean contract, allowing him to speak on 4/3 as scheduled. (AMP is one of the organizations Israel blacklisted because of its BDS activities.) The future of the anti-BDS law, however, was still in question at the end of the quarter.
U.S. Jewish Community Divided
With recent polls showing a growing partisan divide over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict across the United States, Jewish and pro-Israel groups were struggling to balance the will of their constituents and the increasingly friendly relationship between Trump and Netanyahu. Once seen as a bastion of bipartisan U.S. support for Israel, the annual AIPAC conference served as a battleground for this struggle in early 3/2018. It started on 3/4 when AIPAC’s chief executive officer Howard Kohr stressed the need for a two-state solution in his address to the conference. “We must all work for that, toward that future, two states for two peoples: one Jewish with secure and defensible borders and one Palestinian with its own flag and its own future.” The next day, settlement movement leader Yossi Dagan condemned Kohr’s comments. “I am astounded as to why such a great, meaningful organization as AIPAC, whose raison d’être is pro-Israel advocacy in the United States, would present the positions of the State of Israel (and of the United States) so inaccurately before senior government officials, senators and congressmen, and the general pro-Israel public.” Dagan concluded his open latter by urging AIPAC to “update its talking points.”
Annual Human Rights Report
Marking yet another break with former president Barack Obama’s administration, Trump’s State Department expunged any use of the term “occupied territories” in reference to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights in its 2018 report on human rights. Published on 4/20, the report summarized human rights violations perpetrated around the world, including by the Palestinians and Israelis, as in previous years. Apart from the new terminology, the only other change came in the form of a methodological statement: “Because of timing constraints, the Israeli government was not able to provide a detailed response to every alleged incident, but it did maintain generally that all incidents were thoroughly investigated and parties held accountable, as appropriate, according to due process of law.” Israeli officials as high-ranking as Defense Minister Lieberman celebrated the terminology change. “They say that if you repeat a lie enough, it eventually becomes the truth, but the truth will always be stronger,” he tweeted (4/21). “The announcement by the U.S. State Department is proof of that.”
PLO on Trial
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition to hear the case of Sokolow v. PLO on 4/2. In doing so, the court reaffirmed the appeals court’s decision (8/31/2016) to throw out the U.S. District Court of New York 2/23/2015 ruling in favor of the families of U.S. citizens killed in a string of attacks in Israel between 2002 and 2004 (see JPS 44  and 46 ). The PLO was therefore no longer liable for the $655 million in damages awarded in the initial ruling.
In an unexpected development, the Trump administration sided with the PLO prior to the ruling, despite appeals from both the families and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. On 10/26/ 2017, 24 senators had signed onto a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Tillerson calling on the administration to acquiesce to the Supreme Court’s request for an amicus curiae brief. “We urge the administration to demonstrate its resolve to combat international terrorism and put American victims first by avoiding any unnecessary delay and responding as soon as possible to the Supreme Court’s request,” they wrote. Solicitor General Noel Francisco filed the Trump administration’s brief four months later (2/22), but he urged the court to reject the appeal and reaffirmed the appeals court’s reasons for throwing out the initial verdict.
Facilitating Easier Entrance for Israelis
The U.S. embassy in Israel announced a new program (3/22) designed to facilitate the application process for Israeli citizens looking to renew their non-immigrant visas. The new Interview Waiver Program allowed applicants who held valid tourist visas or visas that had recently expired to mail their application materials to the embassy. Previously, such applicants were required to visit the embassy for an in-person interview.
Also of note: All one hundred U.S. senators signed onto a letter (2/20) to the Department of Homeland Security requesting that Israel be included in the Customs and Border Protection office’s Global Entry program, which would allow certain Israeli travelers expedited customs and immigration screenings when entering the United States. “Israel’s membership in Global Entry would not only provide its passport holders a smoother visit to the United States but would also help to make our country safer by enhancing bilateral law enforcement cooperation,” the senators wrote.