Congress Can Fight the Boycott Israel Movement

Trade promotion legislation should discourage Europe from its economic attacks on the Jewish state.

By  PETER J. ROSKAM

May 25, 2015 6:13 p.m. ET

Israel has faced existential danger since its founding. It pushed back conventional assaults during the 1948 War of Independence against Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, the 1967 Six Day War against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War against an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria. Today it faces periodic rocket fire, suicide bombings, and even kidnappings by Hamas. These efforts have tried but failed to demoralize and destabilize a critical U.S. ally.

Compounding these challenges is economic aggression that the U.S. must help address before it’s too late. This aggression consists of efforts in boardrooms, Western capitals and the world-body headquarters of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations to make routine business with Israel more difficult, sanctionable and even prosecutable. The objective of this boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign is to isolate Israel politically, undermine it economically, and stigmatize and delegitimize it.

The U.S. has a strong history of taking action to dismantle economic boycotts against Israel. In response to the Arab League Boycott starting in 1948—a campaign initiated by a coalition of Arab states to economically isolate Israel—Congress enacted legislation in 1976 and 1979 banning U.S. companies from participating. It worked. The boycott had a marginal impact on Israel’s economy, and the U.S. Commerce Department still maintains an office to ensure that American companies live up to the law.

Today, this new iteration of economic warfare against Israel is taking shape from a growing contingency of governments, corporations and state-backed financial institutions within the EU that are taking steps to boycott and divest from Israeli markets and companies.

After last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, a leaked document revealed high-level discussions among EU member states working to develop economic sanctions intended to pressure Israel to accept political concessions such as ending the blockade of Gaza irrespective of terrorism from Hamas. European diplomats involved in drafting the document claimed that there was “an agreement among all 28 member countries of the European Union to discuss measures against Israel, and that is what should worry the government in Jerusalem and the Israeli public.”

Over the past two years, major European banks and financial firms—including Denmark’s Dankse Bank, Sweden’s Nordea Bank, and Dutch pension fund PGGM—have blacklisted various Israeli banks because they operate in the West Bank. Meanwhile, the U.K. Trade and Investment agency published in 2013 an “Overseas Business Risk Report” that urged British companies to avoid doing business with any Israeli entities associated with the West Bank.

In 2013 the Dutch water supplier Vitens was advised by its government to terminate its contract with Israeli water giant Mekorot, alleging that its mere presence in the West Bank violated international law. Ironically, the move came a day after Israel, and Mekorot specifically, announced a trilateral water agreement to help both Jordan and the Palestinian Authority meet their water needs.

European Union discrimination against Israel could also jeopardize an otherwise strong commercial relationship with the U.S. If the BDS campaign continues to grow, American companies heavily invested in Israel—such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Intel—could find themselves entangled in legal battles. In many instances these companies’ business ties with Israel anchor their global presence and strengthen the U.S. economy, including by directly supporting thousands of U.S. jobs.

The U.S. cannot allow its firms to be pressured to leave Israel or risk their commercial operations in Europe. This threatens not only our ally Israel, but the health of our own economy.

The good news is we now have a chance to fight back against this harmful campaign. Congress is currently debating bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation, which stipulates key American objectives in free-trade negotiations with the EU. Included in these priorities is language I co-authored with Rep. Juan Vargas (D., Calif.), Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.) and Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) instructing U.S. negotiators to discourage our prospective European trade partners from participating in boycott, divestment and sanctions.

If these countries want free trade with the U.S., they can’t engage in politically motivated boycotts against Israel. These same principles were successfully negotiated into U.S. free-trade agreements with Bahrain and Oman in the mid-2000s, prompting both countries to end their boycotts of Israel.

Members of Congress from both parties agree that preserving Israel’s economic stability is a strategic imperative for the U.S. We must learn from the lessons of the past and take threats to Israel seriously. We must not be fooled by those marketing BDS as anything but blatant discrimination against the Jewish state. And we must seize the historic opportunity to push back forcefully against the BDS movement to ensure the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Mr. Roskam, a Republican, represents Illinois’s 6th Congressional District and serves on the House Ways and Means Committee.