by James J. Zogby
As this past week began, with the shutdown of parts of the US government entering its third week, Republicans, desperate to force the Democrat’s hand, decided to play the “Israel card.” The effort failed.
The standoff between the White House and the Democrats that caused the shutdown is the result of President Trump’s insistence that any new congressionally approved budgets for this year must include over $5 billion to cover the cost of the “wall” he has promised to build on the U.S. border with Mexico. This is the third such standoff over this very same issue in Trump’s two years in office.
Exactly one year ago, Democrats offered the administration a compromise in the form of trade-offs. They agree to support wall-funding in exchange for White House concessions on the status of undocumented minors. At first Trump agreed, but after blow-back from hard-line conservatives, he backed away from the compromise and upped the ante by insulting immigrants from African countries and calling for an end to “family unification” visas.
Now, with Democrats in control of Congress, the president and the Republicans in Congress have hardened their stance, in effect saying, “no wall, no budget.” Recognizing that their position is increasingly untenable, since a majority of the public don’t want or see any need for a wall, they have tried a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, congressional Republicans have attempted to shift the discussion from a “wall” to the more general need for more border security. For his part, Trump and his White House spokespersons, while continuing to insist on a wall, have tried to use fear tactics warning of thousands of terrorists and drugs “flowing unimpeded across the border.”
Into the second week of the standoff, following the swearing-in of the new Congress, Democrats declared that the first priority of this Congress should be passing the budget and reopening the government. As their first act, the House of Representatives passed a compromise budget bill that the Republican Senate had endorsed just one month ago. That bill didn’t pass the Republican-controlled House and so never went any further. After passing this budget bill, the new Democratic-controlled House sent it to the Senate for approval. Because Trump now doesn’t approve of this compromise, the Republican leader of the Senate refuses to bring this bill, which just weeks ago he had supported, to a vote. Until he does, Democrats in the Senate have said that they feel it inappropriate to conduct any other Senate business.
It was at this point, Senator Mario Rubio (R-FL), with the blessing of the Senate majority leader, tried to “pull a fast one” on the Democrats by introducing Senate Bill 1 (SB1) “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East.” SB1 has four parts.
The first is a wide ranging and significant upgrade of U.S. security assistance to Israel. Next is a reauthorization of U.S.-Jordan defense cooperation. Then comes a number of provisions that deal with sanctions against Syria and assistance to Syrian people. The final portion of the bill is called the “Combating BDS Act of 2019” – an effort to support state and local governments that criminalize or punish those who engage in boycotts, divestment, or sanctions against “Israel or areas under Israeli control.”
Despite disclaimers that SB1 doesn’t predetermine Israel’s borders or violate U.S. citizens’ constitutionally protected rights, it actually does both. By including “areas under Israel’s control” for “protection” against BDS, the bill clearly accepts Israel’s occupation of much of the West Bank. And by its very nature, SB1 is a violation of U.S. citizens’ rights to engage in free speech and freedom of choice—which is why the bill has been opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of liberal and conservative rights organizations. It was precisely because of the concern with the violation of free speech that this anti-BDS bill has not passed in earlier congresses.
By putting these anti-BDS provisions in the bill and including another Israel-related related section, Republicans hoped to accomplish two objectives: break the resolve of the Democrats who object to conducting “business as usual” until a budget is passed and use “support for Israel” as a wedge issue to try to peel American Jewish support away from the Democratic party. As clever as they thought their crass exploitation of Israel may have been, it didn’t work.
The first Democrat to publicly object to Rubio’s ploy was Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who 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.
In response, newly sworn-in Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tweeted:
They forgot what country they represent. This is the US where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom and equality. Maybe a refresher on our US Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away.
Rubio and a host of American Jewish groups and advocates jumped on this bizarrely charging that Tlaib was suggesting that Jews have “dual-loyalty.” Tlaib smartly rebutted the charge saying that nothing in her tweet suggested anything about American Jews. She responded, “Sen. Rubio, it’s clear my earlier tweet was critical of US Senators, like yourself, who are seeking to strip Americans of their Constitutional right to free speech.”
Rubio and other Republicans then tried to portray the Democrats, as a whole, as “soft on Israel” because they won’t oppose BDS. But that argument flopped when strong supporters of Israel like Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Ben Cardin (D-MD)—the original author of the anti-BDS bill—agreed with Sanders that there will be no Senate “business as usual” until Republicans agree to reopen the government. As a result, each time the Republicans brought SB1 for a vote (twice, so far, with a third attempt scheduled for early next week), it failed to secure enough support.
And so here we are three full weeks into a standoff with no end in sight. The Republicans have tried inciting fear of “hordes of illegals and drugs” and exploiting Israel to break the Democrat’s resolve. Both efforts failed. Maybe, in due time, they’ll try something new—like good-faith negotiations. It might just work.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.