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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

Democrats in BDS fight back block bill over shutdown

The bipartisan package is to be blocked until the government is reopened in Washington

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks outside the White House after meeting with US President Donald Trump to discuss the partial government shutdown. AFP
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks outside the White House after meeting with US President Donald Trump to discuss the partial government shutdown. AFP

Senate Republican hopes of pushing through their first bill of the new Congress were dashed late on Tuesday when the Democrats blocked a bill aimed at opposing boycotts of Israel.

The package has stalled on a vote of 56-44, not enough to clear the 60-vote hurdle needed to advance.

In support of Israel, Republican Senator Marco Rubio's bill would affirm the legal authority of state and local governments to restrict contracts and take other actions against those "engaged in BDS conduct", referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Several states are facing lawsuits after taking action against workers supporting BDS boycotts of Israel.

The rejection of the bill appeared to be as much about the shutdown as it was about opposing Israeli policies. President Trump’s government shutdown over his demand for billions of dollars in funds for a new border wall is now in its third week.

Democrats said they will block the bill until government is reopened. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer opposed proceeding to the legislation. Other Democratic senators who supported the substance of the bill followed suit.

“The whole thing here is that we cannot be business as usual, with the government shut down, people not getting paychecks and people getting hurt,” Senator Pat Murray of Washington said. “That's what this is about.”

Yet some Republicans suggested that the Democrats torpedoed the bill because Senator Marco Rubio had included a provision that had made it easier for states to express their opposition to the BDS movement.

Opposition to the movement is not ubiquitous among Democrats and therefore they had not wanted to open divisions amid the government shutdown, some Republicans alleged.

The BDS movement is a global campaign that seeks to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It calls for Palestinians to be given equal rights to Jewish citizens of Israel and for a right to return for Palestinian refugees.

The movement has had several notable successes, including pressuring British security firm G4S to sell its entire Israeli business, French phone giant Orange to end its contract with an Israeli partner and forcing French multinational Veolia to exit from its Israeli business.

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Opponents say Mr Rubio's measure infringes on free speech. Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted: "It's absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity. Democrats must block consideration of any bills that don't reopen the government. Let's get our priorities right."

But Mr Rubio's office says the bill allows the governments "to counter economic warfare against Israel".

Mr Rubio, a Florida senator, said in a series of tweets, including one pointed at Mr Sanders and Ms Tlaib: "The shutdown is not the reason Senate Democrats don't want to move to Middle East Security Bill.... A significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that."

While the legislation stalled on Tuesday night, the US has a long history of supporting Israel and protecting it from boycotts.

More than two dozen states already ban investment in companies that choose to boycott Israel.

After a recent controversy in which home rental company Airbnb announced it would not allow Israeli properties in occupied Palestinian territory to be listed on its platform, Israel’s interior minister lobbied the governors of New York, California, Florida, Missouri and Illinois to follow suit and punish companies that support boycotts of Israel.

In Texas, a law passed in May 2017 dictated that a government entity could not enter into business with another company unless it had confirmed that the partner would not boycott Israel at any point in the duration of that contract. This law includes contractors and has proved controversial. A children’s speech pathologist who worked at a Texas elementary school who refused to sign the pro-Israel oath declaring that she would not boycott Israel lost her job. She is suing the school district over their decision to terminate her contract.

“Bahia’s decision to buy this kind of hummus and not that kind of hummus is her decision,” her lawyer said, “and the Constitution protects it.”

Updated: January 9, 2019 10:00 PM

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