Rubio’s West Bank Initiative Unfit for Prime Time

Alan Elsner Image
Alan Elsner
on February 3, 2016

J Street’s blog aims to reflect a range of voices. The opinions expressed in blog posts do not necessarily reflect the policies or view of J Street.

This piece was originally published in The Jerusalem Post

With his top three finish in the Iowa Republican caucuses, Sen. Marco Rubio is garnering heightened media coverage as a credible challenger to the leaders for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz.

With the coverage should come greatly increased scrutiny of Rubio’s record, both domestic and foreign. One recent Senate move by Rubio, seemingly designed to casually erode and eventually overthrow almost five decades of US bipartisan policy opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, is worthy of much more attention than it has received. It paints a concerning picture of a candidate hoping to be taken seriously as a potential Commander-in-Chief and custodian and author of US foreign policy.

Rubio is the lead sponsor of a resolution opposing a recent notice by the European Commission that goods produced in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories must be labeled as such – and may not be labeled as if they were made in Israel.

Sponsors of the resolution argue that it is a blow against the boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to isolate and weaken Israel. Accurate labeling of products cannot be considered a boycott. Consumers are free to make choices to buy or not to buy but should have the right to know where goods originate. In fact the United States has required since 1995 that goods from the West Bank may not be labeled “made in Israel,” although it is unclear to what extent the rule has been enforced.

The real effect of the resolution is to blur the distinction between the internationally—recognized territory of pre-1967 Israel, where democracy reigns, and the land captured in 1967 where some 1.8 million Palestinians are subject to Israeli military rule.

The text of the resolution Rubio is sponsoring says that the US Senate “opposes politically motivated acts of boycott, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel or Israeli-controlled territory” (author’s italics). In other words, all products whether produced in Israel or in the settlements are to be regarded as Israeli products.

Israeli commentator Gershom Gorenberg said such moves, “equate opposition to settlements with opposition to the State of Israel. Ironically, it strikes a position quite like that of the BDS movement: It leaves no room for a political stance of supporting Israel while opposing settlement and occupation.”

The West Bank is the area designated for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state in the context of a peace treaty between the Palestinians and Israel. Although prospects for such an agreement seem dim in the current political situation, both the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain officially committed to this goal. The United States has worked for a two-state solution for the past quarter century with the backing of almost the entire international community.

One of the obstacles that makes reaching such a peace ever more difficult is the continuing relentless growth of Israeli settlements – which the United States has steadily opposed since the late 1960s under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. To be clear, settlements are not the only obstacle to peace. There are many other issues to be resolved, not least the eventual borders of a future Palestinian state and the critical issue of ensuring Israeli security.

But the more the settlements expand and the more land they occupy, the harder it will be to carve out space for a Palestinian state. Rubio’s resolution aids and legitimizes the expansion of the settlements by in effect placing them under the protection of the United States Congress.

Rubio may score some political points with certain right-wing supporters of his presidential campaign by sponsoring such measures. But they fail the smell test of a candidate hoping to become President seriously thinking through foreign policy issues and making reasoned and principled judgments.

Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @alanelsner