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Palestine advocates say discourse is shifting in US, as key Democrats vote against anti-BDS bill

Democratic Party's 2020 presidential hopefuls voted against bill that would encourage US states to punish contractors who boycott Israel
Despite their votes, some top Democrats say they oppose Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (AFP/File photo)

A day after the US Senate passed a bill that would encourage state and local governments to sanction contractors who boycott Israel, advocates for Palestinian rights in the United States say the vote nonetheless displays a shift in how Israel is viewed in Washington.

All the Democratic Party's presidential hopefuls in the Senate voted against the bill on Tuesday, including Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, who have formally announced their intention to run for the Democratic nomination in 2020.

Other Democratic senators who have not yet formally thrown their names into the running - such as Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley - also voted against the legislation, which ultimately passed in a 77-23 vote.

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Omar Baddar, deputy director at the Arab American Institute, said those no votes can be partially credited to a change in the Democratic base.

"There is recognition of the shift on the issue of Israel and Palestine and the growing support for Palestinian rights," he told Middle East Eye.

Last year, a Pew research poll found that only 27 percent of Democrats said they sympathised more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared to 79 percent of Republicans.

Still, while 21 Democrats voted against the bill, 24 voted in favour, with only one Republican voting against.

The anti-boycott measure was included in a wider Middle East policy bill that reinforces Washington's support for Israel and Jordan.

The section that condemns the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights has garnered the most attention, however, with civil liberty and human rights groups saying restrictions on the right to boycott Israel are unconstitutional.

Indeed, many Democrats have cited concerns the legislation infringes on US citizens' First Amendment rights as the reason they couldn't back it.

Still, Baddar said he believes shifting opinions on Washington's policies towards Israel and Palestine came into play.

"Unquestioning support for Israel has been accepted for a very long time, but now there are limits to how far they are willing to go," Baddar said.

Top Democrats still oppose BDS

Still, while they voted against the recent Senate legislation, several top Democrats say they remain staunchly opposed to the BDS movement.

Launched by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, BDS seeks to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories, ensure equal rights for Palestinian citizens of the state, and grant the right of return to Palestinian refugees.

Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, has co-sponsored anti-BDS legislation that raised First Amendment concerns in the past.

But the presidential hopeful told MEE this week's Senate bill "plainly misses the mark".

"I have a strong and lengthy record of opposing efforts to boycott Israel," Booker told MEE. "However, this specific piece of legislation contains provisions that raise serious First Amendment concerns and that's why I voted against it."

Booker told MEE he drafted an amendment "to help address these widely-held concerns", but he said the bill failed to be improved.

"There are ways to combat BDS without compromising free speech, and this bill as it currently stands plainly misses the mark," he said, pointing to a bill he co-sponsored in 2017, the S. 270 Israel Anti-Boycott Act.

New York's Gillibrand also co-sponsored that 2017 bill, but later pulled her name from the legislation because she said it threatened freedom of speech, like the most recent anti-BDS bill.

In a 2017 opinion article, Gillibrand called herself "one of the strongest and most consistent supporters of Israel in the Senate", while defending her choice to take her name off the legislation.

"I signed onto it because I have always supported Israel and opposed BDS. But when constitutional lawyers expressed alarm that the bill could have a chilling effect on the First Amendment, I took their concerns seriously," she wrote at the time.

'A positive development'

Baddar said he was not surprised US lawmakers who voted against the anti-BDS bill largely did so for First Amendment concerns instead of foreign policy ones.

Still, he said he was hopeful that a space was being created for pro-Palestinian voices within the Democratic party.

'This is an issue that people can’t take lightly or just pander to loosely like they have in the past'

- Omar Baddar, Arab American Institute

"Whether the evolution comes from education or grassroots pressure, it’s still movement," Baddar said.

"It’s a positive development that this is an issue that people can't take lightly or just pander to loosely like they have in the past," he added.

Amid the growing debate over Israel and Palestine among Democratic voters and politicians, a new pro-Israel lobby group, the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), launched last month with plans to "maintain and strengthen support for Israel among Democratic leaders".

“Most Democrats are strongly pro-Israel and we want to keep it that way," Mark Mellman, the group's president and a longtime Democratic pollster, told the New York Times.

"There are a few discordant voices, but we want to make sure that what’s a very small problem doesn’t metastasise into a bigger problem," he said at the time.

Mellman’s office did not respond to MEE's request for further comment.

Calls to drop anti-BDS bill

The Senate legislation must still pass a vote in the US House of Representatives and be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

As the bill heads to the House of Representatives, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called on members to drop the anti-BDS act because of the "threat" it poses to Americans' right to free speech.

"Today the Senate chose politics over the Constitution and trampled on the First Amendment rights of all Americans," the group said in a statement after the vote.

House representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both Democratic newcomers, are the only members of Congress who have openly supported the BDS movement.

Dozens of states have passed various forms of anti-BDS bills in recent years, but several of those measures are currently being challenged in courts across the country.

Federal judges in Arizona and Kansas declared anti-boycott laws in those states unconstitutional.