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After Trump - this is how a U.S. president could hold Israel accountable
A progressive president would have many tools at their disposal to ensure
American weapons and taxpayers` money do not violate Palestinian rights.
By January 22, 2020
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking with attendees at the Presidential Gun
Sense Forum, Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Gage Skidmore)
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking with attendees at the Presidential Gun
Sense Forum, Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Gage Skidmore)
A year into the Democratic Partyís presidential primary, the top candidates
have coalesced around a general consensus on how to reverse the Trump
administrationís rightward lurch on Israel. This consensus includes:
restoring U.S. funding to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees;
working toward a two-state solution; and opposing Israeli settlements.

But if that is all the candidates pursue, it would simply be a return to
Obama-era policies. Thereís a lot more a Democratic president like Bernie
Sanders or Elizabeth Warren should do ó and they can do it without Congress.

Once in the White House, and with the help of executive branch agencies, the
president would have the legal authority to withhold U.S. weapons transfers
to Israel and to investigate, or even curb, American nonprofits that receive
tax-exempt donations and send that money to Israeli settlements. The U.S.
Constitution gives the executive branch a great deal of power over foreign
policy, and itís time a Democratic president uses that authority to end
Israeli human rights violations.

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It would not be easy; Congress would give a great deal of pushback. But if a
Democratic president is willing to fight Israelís allies in Washington, they
could potentially challenge the decades-old status quo, center Palestinian
human rights in U.S. policy-making, and open a real debate about the nature
of Americaís relationship to Israel.

The most straight-forward tools concern the more than $3 billion in U.S.
military support sent annually to Israel. Under the 1961 Foreign Assistance
Act, the U.S. is prohibited from sending weapons to countries that engage in
a ďconsistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized
human rights.Ē The 1976 Arms Export Control Act says that the U.S. should
only transfer arms to countries for self-defense. Various bilateral
agreements signed by U.S. and Israeli officials are supposed to place limits
on the Israeli militaryís use of American weapons.

Warplanes during the ďBlue FlagĒ, an international aerial
training exercise at the Ovda air force base, Southern Israel, November 11,
2019. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)
Warplanes during the ďBlue FlagĒ, an international aerial training exercise
at the Ovda air force base, Southern Israel, November 11, 2019. (Yonatan
Sindel / Flash90)
There is also the Leahy Law (named after Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Senator
who wrote the legislation), which some Palestinian rights advocates see as
more politically feasible to use because it applies to individual military
units, rather than an entire foreign army. Passed in 1997, it prohibits the
U.S. from sending weapons to or training individuals or units that violate
human rights.

Israelís extrajudicial killings of Palestinian protesters, and its
bombardments of Gaza, could easily fall under all of these laws.

The problem with these regulations is that they are sporadically enforced,
paving the way for American weapons to flow to countries around the world
with terrible human rights records, from Saudi Arabia to Honduras. But since
the laws are already on the books, a president and his or her cabinet
secretaries simply need to decide to take them seriously and implement them,
including on countries that are historically allies of the U.S. like Israel.

The next president can begin by appointing Secretaries of State and Defense
ó the agencies that approve weapons sales and foreign training ó who commit
to looking more closely at whether U.S. weapons sales to Israel and training
of Israeli forces are consistent with its laws.

The idea of curbing U.S. arms sales to Israel may sound fantastical, but
thereís precedent for applying these laws to do so.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter warned Israel that it was in violation of
the Arms Export Control Act when Israel used armored personnel carriers
during its invasion of Lebanon that year, and threatened to stop weapons
transfers if they continued to be used for offensive purposes. Israel got
the message, and withdrew its forces. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan
halted the sale of U.S. cluster bombs to Israel because the country dropped
the munitions on civilian areas in Lebanon, a violation of U.S.-Israeli
bilateral agreements on the use of such bombs.

What there is not precedent for, however, is a U.S. president addressing the
American nonprofits that fund Israeli settlements in the occupied
territories. Dozens of these organizations exist, funding everything from
the radical extremists of Yitzhar to the home-evictors of Ateret Cohanim.
According to a 2015 Haaretz investigation, pro-settler nonprofits gave
Israeli settlements over $220 million from 2009 to 2013. These groups are
subsidized by the American taxpayer, since their donations are exempt from
dues collected by the U.S. government.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a joint Session of the
U.S. Congress on March 3, 2015. (Official Photo by Caleb Smith)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a joint Session of the
U.S. Congress on March 3, 2015. (Official Photo by Caleb Smith)
A U.S. president who wants to limit taxpayer subsidies for these settler
nonprofits could appoint an Internal Revenue Service commissioner who would
investigate such organizations, and ultimately revoke their tax-exempt
status. The IRS has the authority to do so if a nonprofitís actions go
against ďpublic policy.Ē That provision of U.S. law has been used before: in
1976, the IRS revoked the nonprofit status of Bob Jones University because
the Christian campus banned interracial dating, a prohibition that violated
Constitutional guarantees against racial discrimination. The Supreme Court
upheld the IRSí decision in 1983.

Another route would be to declare specific Israeli groups that receive
American funding as terrorist entities. One obvious target would be Lehava,
an Israeli group that has received U.S. donations and whose members have
been linked to violent actions targeting Palestinians, including street
gangs that beat up Palestinians and a 2014 arson attack on a Hebrew-Arabic
school in Jerusalem.

Declaring such organizations as terrorists has also been done before. In
1997, the State Department put Kahane Chai, a group inspired by the far-
right Rabbi Meir Kahane, on the departmentís terrorist list, an action that
prohibited U.S. citizens from giving funds to the group. Today, Kahaneís
followers have moved to other groups, including Benzi Gopstein, who is now
the leader of Lehava. Tíruah, an American Jewish group, has identified other
pro-Kahane groups in Israel that receive U.S. donations, and in 2018 asked
the IRS to revoke their tax exempt status.

If implemented by a Democratic president, these ideas would spark outrage
among Israelís allies in Congress. Representatives would have the ability to
counter these moves through legislation that ties the presidentís hands in
implementing his or her decisions, and settler nonprofits themselves could
take the matter to federal courts, thus slowing down the policiesí efficacy.

But even if that happens, a public fight between a president and Congress
over whether to respect Palestinian human rights would be a victory in and
of itself. It would create an unprecedented debate on U.S. complicity in
Israelís occupation, and allow American voters to see just how little
Congress cares about Palestinian lives. A new president should use these
tools if they really want to transform U.S. policy and reverse the
entrenchment of Israeli apartheid.

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