Will Republican goading galvanise Democratic support for BDS?

By Josh Ruebner

Omar Barghouti, a leading figure of the Palestinian civil society-led campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel, is unflappably calm and measured when articulating his vision for how people of conscience around the globe can support the Palestinian people in their quest for freedom, justice, and equality through these time-honoured tactics to advance human rights.

The placid, almost academic mien of this bespectacled 55 year-old author and activist belies the fierce urgency of his message and the fervor, bordering on maniacal hatred, of those who seek to tear him down.

Last week, the Trump administration banned Barghouti from entering the United States, despite his holding of a valid entry visa.

Barghouti learned of the injunction only at the airport, as he sought to board a flight that was to have taken him on a speaking tour, organised by the Arab American Institute, with stops including Capitol Hill, think tanks and universities.

Barghouti also will miss his daughter’s upcoming wedding in the United States as a result.

The American Civil Liberties Union excoriated the decision as “a disgrace and a violation of Americans’ First Amendment rights. The Trump administration should not decide which ideas Americans can and cannot hear directly from speakers.”

Some Republicans, such as Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), begged to differ, however. In a xenophobic and unsubstantiated screed, Zeldin justified the banning of “this foreigner [who] is filled w/anti-Israel & anti-Semitic hatred. We should reject Omar Barghouti’s hate, reject the BDS movement, & reject his many examples of blatant anti-Semitism.”

Zeldin, one of only a handful of Jewish Republicans in Congress, has helped to shape the GOP’s response to the ascendance of campaigns to boycott for Palestinian rights. This two-pronged strategy has involved legislative efforts to condemn, penalise, and even criminalise support for BDS and transparent procedural ploys designed to inaccurately portray the Democratic caucus in Congress writ large as being supportive of the BDS movement.

The GOP wasted no time in deploying this strategy in the current Congress. On its first day, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced the first bill of the session, which included uncontroversial authorisations for military aid to Israel and Jordan and additional sanctions against the Syrian regime.

Rubio also included the Combating BDS Act in his bill, a measure he had sponsored but failed to pass in the previous congressional session, which unconstitutionally encourages states and localities to enact legislation denying government contracts to individuals, nonprofit organisations, and businesses that boycott for Palestinian rights.

Read more: Protecting Americans’ right to hear from leading BDS figure Omar Barghouti
Knowing that the Democratic caucus in the Senate was virtually unified in opposing any vote on substantive legislation during the government shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) forced three cloture votes in quick succession, all of which were defeated.

Rubio then cynically used these votes to falsely assert that “a significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.”

Contrary to Rubio’s claim, no senator has publicly supported boycotts for Palestinian rights; however, after the government reopened and Rubio’s bill was finally cleared for debate and vote, the final tally revealed a Democratic caucus torn in two, with 23 Senators voting against the bill on constitutional grounds.

The GOP built on this limpid attempt to paint Democrats as being in cahoots with the BDS movement during the final debate and vote earlier this month on an historic resolution calling on the president to withdraw US forces from the Saudi Arabia-led war against Yemen.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) offered a non-germane motion to recommit the resolution to committee and bring it back to the House for another vote in an amended form to “condemn and oppose” boycotts for Palestinian rights and “all efforts to delegitimise the State of Israel.”

Only five Democrats crossed the aisle to vote in favour of this unsuccessful procedural roadblock to slow down passage of a resolution to end US complicity in human rights abuses in Yemen.

House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), a stalwart supporter of Israel, slammed Republicans for attempting “to prevent Congress from taking action on such an important issue” by “trying to make this a vote about something else,” and condemned “using Israel as a partisan cudgel,” calling it “dangerous, cynical, and harmful to Israel”.

But Hoyer’s admonition did not prevent GOP Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from shedding crocodile tears over the Democrats’ purported embrace of BDS. “Today is a sad day,” McCarthy wrote. “Nearly every single Democrat just voted AGAINST Israel and in support of the BDS movement that seeks to destabilise the only democracy in the Middle East.”

The goals of the GOP effort to depict itself as the party that wholeheartedly backs Israel and the Democrats as the party that supports boycotting for Palestinian rights are clear: To shore up the Christian Zionist vote that constitutes an important segment of its base; to woo additional donations from anti-Palestinian GOP mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson and Adam Milstein; to strengthen the Trump-Netanyahu alliance; and to try to regain Jewish-American voters who have been flocking to the Democrats in the Trump era (in the 2014 midterms, 33 percent of Jewish-Americans voted Republican; in the 2018 midterms, supported plummeted to only 17 percent).

While the GOP’s strategy is straightforward, its veracity is not. At least not yet.

To date, first-term Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) are the only Members of Congress who have publicly supported boycotts for Palestinian rights. And while others may privately sympathise, they have not dared to do so openly.

However, the GOP’s spurious claims about current Democratic support for BDS may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy due to changes at the base of the Democratic Party and the ever rightward shift of the Israeli government.

A recent public opinion poll by Brookings found that 56 percent of Democrats support sanctioning Israel over its continued expansion of illegal colonies in the Palestinian West Bank.

And a report last year by the Pew Research Center found the partisan divide over Israel and the Palestinian people greater than at any point in the past four decades, with Democrats increasingly supportive of Palestinian rights and critical of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection earlier this month may also galvanise Democratic support for the idea of sanctioning Israel. His pre-election pledge to annex Israeli settlements rankled many within the Democratic caucus.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) penned a joint op-ed in The Washington Post, stating that “in the context of recent developments, Congress cannot afford to be silent”. While this call fell far short of advocating for sanctions, the impetus for doing so may be close at hand.

As the Republicans continue to hammer the Democrats as being supportive of BDS, don’t be surprised if more of them begin to take up that mantle.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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