Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration Thursday that a boycott campaign against Israel is anti-Semitic has reignited a long simmering debate over whether the movement is a nonviolent expression of free speech or an attempt to delegitimize Israel’s very existence.

Pompeo announced the Trump administration’s new policy in a swan song visit to Israel. It is the latest in a string of policy changes that have benefited the Israeli government’s views while sidelining Palestinian efforts to obtain an independent state.

Appearing before reporters with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Pompeo compared the boycott to cancer and said anti-Zionism is by its very nature anti-Semitic. Advocates of the BDS movement, as it is called, seek to pressure countries, universities and businesses to boycott, divest and sanction Israel unless it makes concessions to the Palestinians.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make a joint statement after meeting Thursday in Jerusalem. Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press

Pompeo vowed that the Trump administration will cut off government support for any organizations taking part in the BDS movement. Though Pompeo did not outline what groups might be targeted, the move could stop funds going to Palestinian and human rights organizations.

“We will immediately take steps to identify organizations that engage in hateful BDS conduct, and withdraw U.S. government support for such groups,” Pompeo told Netanyahu. “The time is right. Look, we want to stand with all other nations that recognize the BDS movement for the cancer that it is, and we’re committed to combating it.”

Pompeo said the State Department will issue new guidelines so that all goods made in West Bank areas controlled by Israel and exported to the United States must be marked as “Product of Israel” or “Made in Israel.”

The two announcements added controversy and substance to what has otherwise been a largely symbolic farewell tour by Pompeo through Europe and the Middle East in the waning weeks of the Trump administration. Nowhere has Pompeo’s visit sounded more like a last hurrah than in Israel. He has repeatedly praised the administration’s steps that were long sought by Israel, including recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Most countries consider the West Bank, captured along with the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, to be occupied territory whose final status should be determined by negotiations. The U.S. has said decades of on- and off-again talks have accomplished little, and Washington has edged toward the Israeli view as an acceptance of reality on the ground.

Some critics said Pompeo’s announcements were designed more to buttress support among pro-Israel evangelicals should Pompeo run for president and may not survive after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office.

“Pompeo’s trip to Israel – West Bank, Golan visits, product labeling and BDS designation – say far more about his own political aspirations in 2024 than their practical impact in 2020,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator. “With 60-plus days left before the inauguration of a new president, why would anyone take this secretary of state or these gestures seriously?”

Pompeo called the new requirement to label Israeli products from the West Bank as Israeli-made part of the Trump administration’s “reality-based foreign policy approach.”

Eugene Kontorovich, director of the Center for the Middle East and International Law at George Mason University who advised Pompeo on the legal significance of the labeling, said the designation is not a recognition of sovereignty or a step toward annexation.

“The U.S. required such products to be labeled as ‘Made in Israel’ until 1995, and no one understood that to be about sovereignty, just reality,” he said.

Israel considers the BDS movement as a threat to its existence, though it appears to have had little impact on Israel’s economy. Netanyahu hailed Pompeo’s announcement as “simply wonderful.”

Its significance was hailed by Yaacov Berg, the owner of the Psagot winery Pompeo visited.

“We lived for many years with the feeling that the settlement in Judea and Samaria, that we were thieves, that we occupied a land, that we took land from someone,” he said.

Berg said Pompeo’s visit and made-in-Israel declaration “shows unequivocally that we’ve returned home.”

“You can decide what will be, this way or that way, but you can’t ignore the reality that this land is where Jews have lived for 2,000 years,” he added.

But several analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict said Pompeo’s joint declarations makes it more difficult to forge peace.

“The Trump administration is clearly using the lame-duck period to help Israeli settlers erase the distinction between Israel proper and the territory it occupies while making it harder to create an independent Palestinian state and resolve the conflict,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal group that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace. “Yet nothing the secretary of state says or does will prevent the new administration from reinstating strong U.S. opposition to occupation, illegal settlement expansion and creeping annexation in the West Bank.”

Human Rights Watch said the declarations seek to discredit any groups critical of Israeli government actions.

“Instead of combatting systemic racism and far-right extremism in the United States, the Trump administration is undermining the common fight against the scourge of anti-Semitism by equating it with peaceful advocacy of boycotts,” said Eric Goldstein, the acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“Americans have a long history of supporting peaceful boycotts to promote social justice and human rights, like the civil rights boycotts in Mississippi or those against apartheid in South Africa. The Trump administration has no business trying to tar groups because they back boycotts.”


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