Erasing Occupation: The Pernicious Role of Congress

James Lankford (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cody Dowell)

by Lara Friedman

The past two years have seen a wholesale shift in U.S. policy aimed at erasing the foundations on which the peace process was built—mutual recognition, agreement to resolve core issues only through negotiations, acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination—and resetting U.S. policy to relegate Palestinians to the status of an internal Israeli matter, to be handled exclusively in the context of the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship.

Some will want to lay all blame (or credit) for these U.S. policy shifts on Trump. The reality, however, is that Congress is playing a key role supporting and enabling these shifts. In fact, this role dates back to the Obama era.

Take, for example, the question of whether the United States views the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as territories “occupied” by Israel. Much attention has focused on the omission of the word “occupied” from the section on the West Bank and Gaza in the State Department’s 2018 Human Rights Report. Far less attention has been given to the fact that during the Obama era, Congress passed two laws—with broad bipartisan support—that referred to the West Bank and East Jerusalem merely as “territory controlled by Israel” and “Israeli-controlled territories.”

In short, in the name of fighting boycotts of Israel, Congress legislated away U.S. recognition of “occupation” and mandated U.S. support for settlements.

Since Trump took office, Congress has continued to support efforts to fundamentally undermine longstanding pillars of U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine. These efforts include the Taylor Force Act, designed to give the Palestinian Authority (PA) an impossible choice: either take an action guaranteed to destroy any remaining credibility it has in the eyes of its people or refuse to do so and have it established as a matter of U.S. law that the PA is complicit in terror. More recently, congressional moves have included the Anti-Terror Clarification Act, the explicit purpose of which was to enable private citizens to sue the PA and PLO to the point of bankruptcy.

Likewise, under Trump, congressional support for normalizing occupation and settlements has continued, including broad bipartisan support for legislation that, while framed as targeting boycotts of Israel, is explicitly about preventing pressure on settlements. In this same vein, on January 20, a bipartisan group of 10 House members sent a letter to Ireland’s prime minister and top elected officials, attacking an Irish bill for allegedly imposing a boycott on Israel, regardless of the fact that the bill applies only to settlements.

Moreover, today there are those in Congress who are eager to give concrete backing for U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s embrace of settlements. For example, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) gave a speech last month at a “peace through settler-Palestinian cooperation” event in Jerusalem (Friedman did so as well).

Lankford, who led efforts in Congress against UNRWA even as he argued that he only had the best interests of the Palestinians in mind, told attendees that a recently passed funding bill included language for which he had fought “for months” that will ensure that U.S. aid that comes into “this region” will be used for the kind of cooperative projects being discussed at the event. Lankford went on to tell the Jerusalem Post: “There is congressional funding that was just made available…it allows our [US] aid dollars to be used for this, and that was not so in the past.”

Lankford is wrong on two counts. The bill to which he was referring, S. 3108 (the Fiscal Year 2019 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill) was never passed by the Senate, let alone passed into law. And the bill did not include language making U.S. funding available for settler-Palestinian projects.

But he is right about the intent. The report that accompanied S. 3101—which at least theoretically represents a bipartisan expression of Senate appropriators’ views—included unprecedented language stating that if the United States provides funding for Partnership Programs in the West Bank, these funds “shall” be used, among other things, “to support joint Palestinian and Israeli businesses and to encourage commerce between Israeli and Palestinian businesses in the West Bank.”

How and why a policy shift of such significance was quietly included in the Report is unknown. Indeed, it is by no means clear that most members of the committee knew that language was in the report or understood the shift in U.S. policy it suggests. Yet, Lankford’s success in getting language supportive of such a momentous shift in U.S. policy included in the Report suggests that he is not alone in his eagerness to see Congress legislate formal backing for U.S policy that erases occupation.

Finally, AIPAC has sought for years to never be seen as directly supporting or advocating for settlements. That policy will change later this month. For the first time ever, AIPAC will host a settler spokesman at its annual policy conference. The name of the panel on which he’ll be, speaking—“The Future of Judea and Samaria”—strongly suggests that AIPAC is joining the “occupation does not exist” chorus.

In this context, close attention should be paid to a recent public remark made by senior AIPAC official Howard Kohr at a recent House Appropriations Committee hearing. Asked by a member of Congress about AIPAC’s views on a bipartisan proposal for a Palestinian “partnership for peace” fund, Kohr responded: “…for us the critical element here is it needs to be done in a way that also benefits and encourages Israelis and Palestinians to work together…”

Does Kohr mean AIPAC supports U.S. funding for programs that promote partnerships between Palestinians and Israelis living inside Israel (as intended under the pending initiative)? Or, like Friedman and Lankford, does he mean that AIPAC will soon be openly lobbying for the United States to fund programs that directly benefit settlers and normalize occupation? Time will tell.

This is part two of a two-part article. You can read part one here.

Lara Friedman

Lara Friedman is the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP). With more than 25 years working in the Middle East foreign policy arena, Lara is a leading authority on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, with particular expertise on the Israeli-Arab conflict, Israeli settlements, Jerusalem, and the role of the U.S. Congress. She is published widely in the U.S. and international press and is regularly consulted by members of Congress and their staffs, by Washington-based diplomats, by policy-makers in capitals around the world, and by journalists in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to her work at FMEP, Lara is a non-resident fellow at the U.S./Middle East Project (USMEP). Prior to joining FMEP, Lara was the director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now, and before that she was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, serving in Jerusalem, Washington, Tunis and Beirut. She holds a B.A. from the University of Arizona and a Master’s degree from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service; in addition to English, Lara speaks French, Arabic, Spanish, (weak) Italian, and muddles through in Hebrew.