Liberal Lobby Advising Sanders Aims to Defeat Initiatives on Israel/West Bank Labeling

By Patrick Goodenough | February 9, 2016 | 4:20 AM EST

J Street activists demonstrate in 2011 in favor of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. (Photo: J Street/Flickr)

(CNSNews.com) – The liberal Jewish lobby group J Street wants Americans to press their senators to oppose legislation introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) – and supported by the two senators remaining in the GOP presidential race – to annul a directive on labeling goods produced in the territories disputed between Israel and the Palestinians.

J Street – which Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders listed Sunday as a source of foreign policy advice – called the legislation “dangerous” and said it seeks to “subvert longstanding U.S. policy on Israeli settlements.”

Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas are co-sponsors of Cotton’s Fair Treatment of Israel in Product Labeling Act, which challenges a regulation prohibiting goods produced by Israeli companies located in the West Bank from being labeled “made in Israel.”

Although the directive is 20 years-old it has reportedly been enforced erratically. But on January 23 the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reminded traders of the rule, warning that violations will be “subject to an enforcement action.”

That CBP reminder came just days after the European Union (E.U.) reinforced a decision – criticized by Israel – that products made or grown in the disputed territories may no longer be labeled “made in Israel.”

The E.U. move prompted Rubio to introduce a resolution of his own, opposing the E.U. policy and arguing that it “serves to encourage and prompt consumers to boycott Israeli products and goods manufactured in the West Bank and other areas.”

(The E.U. insists the move does not constitute or encourage a boycott – a stance the State Department now says it agrees with, although last November spokesman Mark Toner conceded that it “could be perceived as a step on the way to a boycott.”)

J Street’s alert to supporters cited both the Cotton and Rubio initiatives.

“Senators Cotton and Rubio are promoting dangerous legislation that would subvert longstanding U.S. policy on Israeli settlements,” it said. “Supporting [the initiatives] would put you on record defending Israeli settlement activity – which every U.S. administration has viewed as illegitimate and is considered by many Israelis and pro-Israel Americans as an obstacle to peace.”

‘Happy to advise all candidates’

On Sunday, Sanders said his campaign has turned to J Street as well as Arab American Institute head James Zogby for foreign policy advice.

In response to questions on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about criticism from Hillary Clinton and her supporters about his lack of foreign policy experience, Sanders said, “We’ve talked to people like Jim Zogby, talked to the people on J Street to get a broad perspective of the Middle East.”

J Street and Zogby are both frequent critics of the policies of the current Israeli government, and of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in particular.

On Monday, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami tweeted, in response to questions about his organization advising the Sanders’ campaign, “J Street [is] neutral; happy to advise all candidates.”

In its alert on the Cotton-Rubio initiatives, the lobby group noted that the two were among 47 GOP senators who signed an open letter to Iran’s leaders last March – a letter which J Street described as “undermining President Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran and crippling American leadership on the world stage.”

The letter, initiated by Cotton, informed the regime that the signatories would consider any nuclear agreement not approved by Congress “as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and [supreme leader] Ayatollah Khamenei.” 

Its signatories included all of the current or former GOP presidential hopefuls in the Senate – Rubio, Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

J Street is an enthusiastic backer of the Iran nuclear agreement, and has signaled its intention to lobby for the defeat of lawmakers who opposed it.

In its crosshairs are anti-Iran deal Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), two of the most vulnerable Republicans among those fighting to retain their seats in the fall.

Johnson’s Democratic rival Russ Feingold, a former three-term senator whom Johnson ousted in 2010, features at the top of a list of 21 Democratic Senate contenders J Street is backing.

Also on the list is Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), favored in polls to win a March 15 Illinois Democratic primary to face off against Kirk in November.

Notably absent from J Street’s list of endorsed senators is Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the only one of the four Democrats who voted against the Iran nuclear deal who is up for re-election in 2016. (The other three were Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Cardin of Maryland.)

J Street national political director Ben Shnider wrote last month that J Street was going “on the offense.”

On the campaign trail, candidates who denounced and sought to obstruct this deal should have to explain why they were so opposed to peacefully yet decisively de-fanging Iran’s nuclear program,” he said, echoing the administration’s arguments in favor of its agreement with Tehran.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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