Is Chicago law firm Sidley Austin secretly helping Israel fight BDS?

Graffiti on the Israeli-built separation wall dividing the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem promotes the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, June 2014.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler ActiveStills

Israel has been secretly using a US law firm to help it fight the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

Through a process of deduction, the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz has concluded the firm is Chicago-based Sidley Austin.

There is, however, no direct confirmation that this is the firm doing the anti-BDS work.

But The Electronic Intifada reviewed US government documents showing that Sidley Austin has been registered as a foreign agent of Israel for more than a decade and in the last few years the law firm has been receiving growing sums of money from Israel.

Sidley Austin is a large and influential firm that reaps millions of dollars from lobbying for corporations and governments.

Among its notable alums are Michelle and Barack Obama.

Israeli interference

Haaretz reviewed documents disclosed by Israel’s justice ministry following a freedom of information request by Israeli attorney Eitay Mack and several activists aiming to shed light on Israel’s secretive efforts to thwart the BDS movement.

While the documents show that Israel has contracted to pay large sums to a firm for work related to fighting BDS, the name of the firm is redacted from the documents as is the exact nature of the work.

The documents obtained by Mack show that Israel called for bids from international law firms in early 2016 to help it fight BDS.

“In February 2016, the justice ministry contracted with a law firm, but in May the ministry asked to switch firms after the original outfit was found to have a possible conflict of interest,” according to Haaretz.

Haaretz’s conclusion that Sidley Austin is the firm now doing the anti-BDS work is based on deduction: it reviewed the justice ministry’s report on payments on international contracts.

“The justice ministry’s report on such contracts shows that the government contracted with Sidley Austin in March 2016 for consulting services, without issuing a tender for competitive bidding,” the newspaper states. “In the first half of 2017, the firm received $219,000 in payments. No other law firms were paid under the same budgetary section.”

If Sidley Austin is the only law firm being paid by Israel out of the relevant section of the government’s budget, then it must be the one doing the anti-BDS work, the logic goes.

The newspaper added that “Sidley Austin did not reply to questions on whether it was working for the Israeli government.”

Registered foreign agent

But US government filings show that the firm had already been working for Israel long before March 2016.

Sidley Austin has registered as an agent of the government of Israel under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, commonly known as FARA, for well over a decade.

There is nothing in the records available from the US government’s FARA website that confirms or refutes that Sidley Austin’s work relates to BDS or fighting what Israel calls “delegitimization.”

But there are some interesting patterns. The Electronic Intifada reviewed all the FARA reports going back to US federal fiscal year 2010.

They show that Israel has been paying Sidley Austin steadily larger sums in recent years.

In fiscal year 2010, Israel paid the law firm about $20,000; it paid $27,000 in 2011; $97,000 in 2012; $175,000 in 2013; $221,000 in 2014; $347,000 in 2015 and $183,000 in 2016.

In the first half of the 2017 US fiscal year Israel paid the firm $197,000.

That adds up to more than $1.2 million over the last seven years.

Israel’s global war against the BDS campaign began in earnest after the publication of a 2010 report by the Reut Institute think tank, calling for “sabotage” and “attack” against the Palestine solidarity movement.

Through March 2015, the FARA disclosure reports often specify that Sidley Austin “provided legal advice on negotiating the terms of real estate leases and various employment agreements for use in the United States” to its Israeli client.

From April 2016 onwards, only a vaguer and broader description of the services provided to Israel is used: “The registrant provided advice on legal proceedings in the United States.”

Sidley Austin’s own most recent FARA filing discloses that between 1 October 2016 and 31 March 2017 – the first half of the 2017 US fiscal year – the firm received a total of $197,000 from Israel.

This amount was divided up into nine payments, each described as being “For professional services rendered in connection with legal proceedings in the US and related matters.”

Secrecy and hypocrisy

“The secrecy surrounding the contracts raises the suspicion that the work involves not only writing legal opinions but also preparing lawsuits against BDS supporters, as Israel does not want to be revealed as supporting such actions, to avoid the perception that it is interfering in the internal affairs of other countries,” said Haaretz.

There is a precedent for this. In 2011, The Electronic Intifada revealed that Israeli diplomats were involved in discussions to prepare a lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op over its boycott of Israeli goods.

But what is happening now is on a much bigger scale.

Eitay Mack points to the hypocrisy of the Israeli government’s frequent attacks on human rights organizations in Israel, claiming they are agents of foreign governments. At the same time Israel appears to be running major covert efforts against people in other countries exercising their free speech rights.

“We need to remember the issue of BDS is the issue of freedom of speech and different European countries have recognized that,” Mack told The Electronic Intifada. “Even in the US Israel has an uphill battle to criticize BDS activists. It’s a very problematic issue from a legal perspective to prevent BDS activists to express their opinion.”

“History repeating itself”

Mack likened Israel’s current efforts to those of the South African apartheid regime to discredit and spread disinformation about international solidarity activists a generation ago – activities that happened to involve spying on anti-apartheid activists by the Israel lobby group the Anti-Defamation League.

“What I am afraid now is that history is repeating itself,” Mack said.

He raised the concern that Israel might use advanced surveillance technologies, such as those sold to Mexico and used to spy on journalists there, against anyone perceived as critical of Israel.

Targets could include anyone from BDS campaign groups around the world to UN officials involved in compiling a database of companies doing business in Israel’s West Bank settlements.

“Red flags”

According to Mack, the albeit partial disclosures by the justice ministry have to be seen in the context of the fight against BDS being waged by other Israeli government bodies: the foreign ministry and the strategic affairs ministry.

Israel’s strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan has been running a war on the BDS movement that reportedly involves “black ops” against activists.

His ministry’s director general, Sima Vaknin-Gil, has likened this to a military campaign and stressed the need for secrecy.

“If Israel is working legally to fight BDS, why do they need the secrecy? Mack asks. “If the law firms are only writing legal opinions why would it be a problem to expose that? The secrecy raises red flags that something suspicious is happening.”