On Tuesday, the United States Senate passed a Middle East policy bill that issued a strong rebuke to US president Donald Trump over his decision to abruptly withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The bill also included a provision that allows State and local governments to withhold contracts from companies and individuals that participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
The Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act passed the Senate by a margin of 77-23. It included provisions that authorize USD 3.3 billion a year, for 10 years, in American military aid to Israel. It also imposes new economic sanctions on the government of president Bashar al-Assad, as well as companies and banks that do business with Syria. It directs the treasury department to check if the Central Bank of Syria is engaged in money laundering.
In December, President Trump had announced US victory over ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and his intention to withdraw all or most of the 2,000 US troops in Syria. He also expressed his intent to cut back half of the 14,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan. The decisions were met with strong opposition from US lawmakers and policy makers. Recent reports indicate US troops might leave Syria by the end of April.
Many members of the president’s own national security team opposed the decisions as well, with the secretary of defense, James Mattis, resigning from his post in protest shortly afterwards. This was followed by the resignation of Brett McGurk, US envoy to the global coalition against Islamic State. The head of US central command, General Joseph L. Votel, informed senators on Tuesday that the president had made the announcement without consulting him.
The measure to enact punitive actions on those who take part in BDS activity not only invited backlash from the more progressive, liberal quarters in the US, but was also criticized by some Democrat senators. 21 Democrats voted against the bill while 24 voted in favor, in a major shift from the past, when extending unquestioned support to Israel was the norm for both parties.
Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, called the bill ‘McCarthyite’ and said that, “suppressing free speech on Palestine will only exacerbate the isolation of Israel’s far-right apartheid regime in the mainstream and grow our BDS movement for freedom, justice and equality.”
Omar Baddar, deputy director of the Arab American Institute, said that the significantly larger number of ‘no’ votes was a sign of the recognition of the growing support for Palestinian rights and an evolution of public opinion, especially that of the Democratic base, on the issue of Israel and Palestine. Last year, a Pew research poll found that only 27% of the Democrats said they sympathized more with Israel, compared to 79% of the Republicans.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the bill posed a threat to the Americans’ right to free speech. It denounced the US senate for “trampling the first amendment rights of all Americans, choosing politics over the constitution”. It urged the US House of Representatives, where the bill will go next, and where it must pass a vote, to reject the anti-BDS bill. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) also urged the house to block the anti-BDS measure.
CAIR government affairs director, Robert McCaw, said, “It is a shame that the US Senate would pass such an unconstitutional bill that violates the First Amendment right of all Americans to challenge the illegal and discriminatory actions of a foreign government and goes against the principles of free speech on which our country was founded.”
Many States across the US have already passed similar anti-BDS bills over the past few years, and many of them are already facing legal challenges in courts. Federal judges in Arizona and Kansas declared these bills as unconstitutional.