David Friedman, Ambassador to Israel
In addition to reportedly being a driving force behind Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Friedman further exacerbated the strained U.S.- Palestinian relationship by airing his explicitly prosettlement views this quarter and denying that there was any such thing as an occupation of Palestinian territory. On 12/26, almost three weeks since Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, the Israeli press reported that Friedman had requested that the State Department stop using the term “occupied” in reference to the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The State Department reportedly refused, but pressure “from above” delayed a clear resolution of the issue. Two days later, a State Department official called the news reports “misleading” and “twisted,” and said that Trump was focused on “facilitating a comprehensive peace agreement that will benefit both the Israelis and Palestinians.” A State Department spokesperson then reiterated (1/2) that the department had “not changed” its policy regarding the term “occupied territory.”
Friedman and the State Department had clashed before over the issue, with the former bankruptcy lawyer arguing in an interview published in late 9/2017 that Israel was “only occupying 2 percent of the West Bank” and that it was “always the expectation” that Israel would expand further (see JPS 47 ). Partly as a result of these public spats, Friedman drew fire from the Palestinian leadership. “The ambassador’s recommendations and advice, which do not aim to achieve a just peace on the basis of international legitimacy, is what led to this crisis in American-Palestinian relations, a PA spokesperson said (2/7). “Is he representing America or Israel?” he added.
The Palestinian Issue in Congress
While the steady stream of pro-Israel legislation in Congress continued throughout the quarter, there were signs that some lawmakers in the Democratic caucus were interested in breaking with bipartisan consensus. On 11/14, amid a lobbying push on Capitol Hill by Palestinian solidarity activists, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced a bill titled Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act. Reportedly the first bill in congressional history designed to require accountability for and transparency about U.S. aid to Israel, the measure would require the State Department to certify to Congress annually that none of the money transferred to Israel in the previous year had gone to support the military detention, interrogation, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children in violation of international humanitarian law. If the State Department could not produce such certification, it would be required to report in detail the specific activities and amounts of U.S. aid involved. Although the bill was seen as having very little chance of passing into law, twenty-one lawmakers signed on as cosponsors by the end of the quarter, prompting one Palestinian solidarity activist to pose the question, “Is an intifada starting in the U.S. Congress?” (Electronic Intifada, 12/21).
Many of these same lawmakers also pushed back against the Trump administration’s policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Led by Reps. Peter Welch (D-VT) and David Price (D-NC), 102 Democrats in the House of Representatives signed (2/8) onto a letter calling on Trump to release the $65 million in aid to UNRWA that he froze on 1/16 (see “The Trump Initiative” above). Unlike the signatories of the McCollum bill, these legislators were motivated less by Palestinian human rights concerns and more by their dedication to a two-state solution. “Deliberately exacerbating the hardship of the Palestinian people and reducing the ability of their government to function would only contribute to the benefit of those who reject engagement,” the letter read. “Accordingly, we urge you to continue providing aid to UNRWA and bilateral assistance to the Palestinians to promote U.S. interests, Israeli and Palestinian security, and the stability of regional U.S. allies.”
On 1/31, the State Department announced that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was being classified as a specially designated global terrorist, freezing his U.S.-based assets and barring any U.S. entity from doing business with him. “Haniyeh has close links with Hamas’s military wing and has been a proponent of armed struggle, including against civilians,” the department said in a statement. A State Department spokesperson placed the move in the context of Hamas’s new charter: “The U.S. is not fooled by any attempt by Hamas to re-brand itself. We know it for what it is, a terror organization committed to the destruction of the State of Israel” (see “A Newer Hamas? The Revised Charter” by Khaled Hroub in JPS 46  for details). “This decision will not deter us from continuing [with] the resistance option to oust the occupation,” Hamas responded in a 1/31 statement.
Legislative Backlash on BDS
After a couple of high-profile controversies stemming from new state-level anti-BDS laws last quarter, no new anti-BDS measures were put on the books either in state legislatures or the federal government. The legislative backlash instead faced mounting challenges from civil rights defenders as well as Palestinian solidarity activists.
On 12/7, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit challenging Arizona’s 3/17/2016 law requiring contractors to certify that they do not boycott Israeli firms, products, or services. “The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, and other decisions have established that the government may not require individuals to sign a certification regarding their political expression in order to obtain employment, contracts, or other benefits,” the ACLU argued in a statement announcing the suit. Later in the quarter, a federal judge in Kansas was swayed by similar arguments, blocking (1/30) enforcement of Kansas’s anti-BDS law passed on 6/17/2017 and mandating the creation of a “blacklist” of entities that boycott Israel. District Judge Daniel Crabtree’s decision came in response to an ACLU lawsuit filed in 10/2017. Finally, following pressure from the ACLU and more than one hundred grassroots organizations, a key committee in Massachusetts’s state legislature opted not to advance a new anti-BDS bill on 2/8.