Jason Greenblatt, the Trump administration’s “peace process” envoy, met last week with Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs and public security who oversees Israel’s global operation to combat BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.Greenblatt took to Twitter to laud his “great meeting” with Erdan to discuss BDS, which he claimed is “anti-Semitic and hurts Israelis and Palestinians.” He also reaffirmed the “unshakable bond between our two countries.”
If Greenblatt and Erdan discussed coordinating efforts between Israel and the United States to counter BDS, then Greenblatt may be assisting a foreign government to violate a little known provision of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA).
According to this provision, if the president determines that a foreign country “engaged in a consistent pattern of acts of intimidation or harassment directed against individuals in the United States,” then “no letters of offer may be issued, no credits or guarantees may be extended, and no export licenses may be issued” for the export of US arms to that country.
The defense department, which oversees the implementation of the law along with the State Department, defines AECA as the “basic US law providing the authority and general rules for the conduct of foreign military sales and commercial sales of defense articles, defense services and training.”
As the elemental law governing foreign countries’ eligibility to purchase US weapons or receive them at US taxpayer expense, Israel’s violation of any aspect of this law could have enormous repercussions for bilateral relations and its ability to acquire a large portion of the weaponry that enables it to oppress the Palestinian people.
Previous advocacy efforts to hold Israel accountable for violating the AECA have largely centered on drawing attention to its impermissible usages of US weapons against Palestinian civilians.
The AECA strictly limits the usage of US weapons to “internal security,” “legitimate self-defense,” preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and participation in collective security arrangements.
However, despite the overwhelming evidence that Israel systematically misuses US weapons to commit gross human rights violations against Palestinians, the threat of sanctioning Israel for violating AECA has only been employed sporadically by the United States and only ever implemented by the Reagan administration in response to Israeli military actions in Lebanon and Iraq.
New way to challenge Israeli interference
Given the difficulty of holding Israel accountable for its actual misuse of US weapons under AECA, advocates for Palestinian rights may consider using the overlooked provision on foreign interference as an alternate course toward accountability, especially considering the pervasiveness of Israeli government-funded efforts to harass and intimidate BDS supporters.
Last year, an undercover documentary made by Al Jazeera revealed how certain US-based organizations coordinate directly and covertly with Israel’s strategic affairs ministry in its campaign to spy on, smear and intimidate US citizens who support Palestinian human rights, especially BDS.
The documentary was censored after an Israel lobby pressure campaign on Qatar, Al Jazeera’s funder, but a leaked copy was published by The Electronic Intifada.
And as reported by The Electronic Intifada, the Israeli government provided funding to Act.IL, an online platform to “influence foreign publics” about Israel and “battle” BDS.
The organization maintains offices in six US cities to direct its mission. According to a leaked report from the organization, its efforts extend well beyond social media influencing and include campaigns to fire Palestinian American students from paid campus positions and defeat BDS resolutions advocated for by US civil society groups.
Erdan’s ministry apparently is not the only Israeli governmental agency involved in efforts to suppress BDS campaigns.
A recent report in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper confirmed that Erdan is meeting with the Mossad – Israel’s foreign spying and assassination agency – to discuss “the struggle against the boycott” movement.
US encouraging Israeli “suppression tactics”
This type of foreign intimidation and harassment of US citizens appears to be a clear violation of AECA.
“The Trump administration is in lockstep with the far-right government in Israel, and the two appear to be conspiring to undermine US persons’ First Amendment rights to engage in speech activities in support of Palestinian rights,” Meera Shah, senior staff attorney for the civil rights group Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.
“Instead of sanctioning Israel’s support for harassing and discriminatory behavior by individuals and groups in the US, the US instead is encouraging these tactics, including by passing legislation that stifles criticism of Israel’s suppression tactics.”
However, holding Israel accountable for this apparent violation of AECA will be no easier than previous efforts to bring it to book for its misuse of US weapons, especially when Greenblatt may be coordinating these efforts with Erdan.
In order to trigger sanctions for violating this provision of AECA, the president must make a positive determination and deliver a report to Congress, events highly unlikely to occur under the Trump administration no matter how grave or blatant Israel’s interference in US civil society efforts to boycott for Palestinian rights.
The Trump administration entered office viewing BDS as “inherently anti-Semitic” and pledging to “take strong measures, both diplomatic and legislative, to thwart actions that are intended to limit commercial relations with Israel.”
Nevertheless, advocates for Palestinian rights may consider pressing this matter with members of Congress who support boycotts, such as representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, along with prominent senators, such as Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, both Democratic presidential contenders who back the constitutional right to boycott for Palestinian rights.
Members of Congress have the power to raise the issue in the public discourse, investigate Israeli efforts to harass and intimidate people in the United States and subpoena information from the Trump administration about its possible coordination with Israel in this illicit initiative.
Even though sanctions on Israel appear to be a far-fetched proposition under the Trump administration, these congressional efforts nonetheless could rein in Israel’s government-sponsored campaign to harass and intimidate people in the United States just because they advocate for Palestinian rights.