Friday, June 13, 2008

Seattle's deceptive anti-Israel referendum

A coalition of Seattle activists calling itself Seattle Divest from War and Occupation (SDWO) is petitioning to get an anti-Israel divestment referendum on November's ballot and they are attempting to deceive voters in the process. The referendum's sweeping anti-Israel provisions are concealed both in the text of the petition and in the statements of its supporters, both of which highlight its other provisions calling for divestment in companies profiting from the war in Iraq. The anti-Iraq War provisions of Initiative 97 are touted in its title ("DIVEST FROM WAR Initiative") which is printed in a large font headline above a description of the referendum in smaller print. The full text of the referendum appears on a separate page which appears after the petition's signature page, potentially deceiving voters who don't read all the way through to see the less popular anti-Israel language. (View a PDF of the petition here.)

The fact that the proposal's authors have chosen to link the potentially popular anti-war proposal to the less popular anti-Israel one raises questions as to their priorities. Are they more interested in promoting an anti-Zionist agenda than they are in ending the war? If not, what practical reason do they have to link the two issues making passage of the anti-war provisions less likely? Why don't they give voters the option of signing separate petitions, one concerning Israel, the other Iraq? Why do they conceal the anti-Israel provisions of this referendum within the Trojan Horse of the anti-Iraq-war provisions?

In addition to attempting to conceal its anti-Israel provisions, SDWO have also lied about how sweeping they would be. Some supporters of the referendum (read here) have implied that it would target only companies providing military equipment used in the West Bank and Gaza. Some have even claimed that the bill would only effect Halliburton and Caterpillar. This is patently false. Here's a quote from the proposed referendum:

The city of Seattle shall not invest its employees’ retirement funds in ...(c) corporations that provide direct material support for activities of the Israeli government within the occupied and besieged territories of West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights (and) (d) corporations with a presence (including but not limited to offices, manufacturing plants, franchises, and significant trade ties) in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights.

Please note the vagueness of the term "presence". The referendum pointedly does not limit the word "presence" to "offices, manufacturing plants, franchises, and significant trade ties". In fact, it does not define the limits of the term "presence" at all. A law with language that vague would provide bureaucrats with arbitrary power with respect to deciding which corporations to punish. In effect, any corporation doing business in Israel could be deemed by the administrators of the pension fund to be "present" by dint of some connection to the areas specified and subject to divestment.

Although the Seattle divestment proponents like to cite arms manufacturers as their targets (except Boeing, see below), in fact, this measure would mostly effect corporations doing business in completely non-military fields such as software, retail, agriculture, banking and pharmaceuticals, many of which employ and serve Arabs as well as Jews. Corporations specifically targeted by previous divestment initiatives include: Ahava, Boston Scientific, Domino's Pizza, GM, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, International Paper, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, Lehmann Brothers, Lucent, McDonald's, Merck, Motorola, Pizza Hut, Teva, Texas Instruments and Volvo. Under the terms of Initiative 97, all of these corporations would be subject to divestment. Corporations which operate under contract with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, such as Caterpillar and Cement Roadstone would be subject to divestment as well.

In fact, this measure is so vaguely written that it could actually apply to corporations doing business with relief agencies providing services to Palestinians insofar as they act in concert with the Israeli government or provide services to Israelis. It could also apply to the corporations whose equipment is used to provide fuel or even water to Palestinians if Israelis also used that fuel or water in the regions named in the law. Many of the potentially effected corporations actually employ Palestinians and/or provide Palestinians with goods and services.

The literature produced by the New England United Methodist Conference (NEUMC), the group which spearheaded the anti-Israel divestment movement in the U.S. and provided the model the others follow, is helpful in understanding exactly how broad the intentions of the divestment movement really are, and why the provisions of Initiative 97 are so vague. (Read here and here) Take Blockbuster Video as an example. The NEUMC goes so far as to target Blockbuster for punishment because it
has kiosks in illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land. These settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Companies providing services to these settlements, which violate international law, contribute to their growth and appeal for Israelis. They make it harder to withdraw Israelis from the occupied territories, an essential step for any lasting peace agreement with Palestinians.
"(O)ccupied Palestinian land" in this instance refers to places such as French Hill (a neighborhood in Jerusalem), Maaele Adumim and Ariel. Just how video kiosks interfere with lasting peace is unclear. The theory seems to be that Israelis with access to DVDs are less likely to leave.

The fact that completely harmless commercial activity such as this has been specifically targeted by the divestment movement would seem to portend that, if Seattle were to implement this measure, the definition of "presence" would be very broad indeed. Any business whose goods or services are sold to or even used by Israelis beyond the pre-1967 "Green Line", including within Jerusalem, could be subject to divestment.

In fact, the inclusion of "East Jerusalem" in this measure also broadens the referendum's scope beyond any practicable definition. Jerusalem has effectively been unified for 41 years, since Israel removed that city's barbed wire barricades and walls which were erected by the Jordanians in 1948. Targeting a business with a "presence" on a particular block or in a particular neighborhood would be completely unworkable. Would the pizza delivery guy have to consult a 1967 map of Jerusalem to determine if he was subjecting Pizza Hut to divestment? Would he have to ask if the recipient of the pizza were Arab or Jew? And if an Arab and a Jew shared the pizza...

The measure would even punish commercial activity in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. If a publicly traded corporation produces religious articles such as siddurim, tallitot, or kipot used at the Western Wall, it would be subject to divestment.

Here's the bottom line: any corporation whose goods or services are used in Israel could be subject to divestment under this measure, depending on the interpretation of its vague language.

Local Impact

This measure has local implications specific to Seattle voters concerned about local businesses, complicating matters for its advocates. Seattle-based corporations such as Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks could be subject to punitive divestment, and the divestment people are anxious to spin this aspect every which way but loose. The Seattle Post Intelligencer has reported that the measure's backers claim that the measure would somehow not effect Boeing, although they don't explain why not (read here, fourth paragraph). A local pro-divestment activist named Richard Silverstein has claimed (here, in the last sentence) that Boeing would be exempt because, in his words, "the company is not involved in any commercial enterprises in the settlements". However, both the NEUMC (here) and the Seattle Palestine Solidarity Committee (here) specifically name Boeing as subject to divestment because it supplies aircraft used by Israel in the Palestinian territories. Boeing also does business with the Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems (ESLT) (read here) which would fall under the "direct material support" provision of the referendum. Yet Silverstein and the referendum's unnamed "backers" maintain that Boeing's business in Israel somehow wouldn't be considered either "direct material support" or a "presence" under the referendum.

In fact, not only would Boeing's military presence fall under the aegis of this measure, such innocuous activities as Microsoft's sales, user support or training programs in the areas specified in the referendum would subject that Seattle-based corporation to divestment as well. Furthermore, Microsoft acquires several Israeli startups every year and has R & D facilities in Haifa (read here) and Herliya (read here). If the referendum passes, it would remain to be determined by whoever would determine such matters whether these operations have a "presence" in the relevant areas. Transportation or other programs for employees living in the targeted areas, subcontracts with other businesses, or contracts with the Israeli government might well open the door to Seattle being forced to divest its Microsoft stock under the broad terms of Initiative 97.

Even Starbucks, which does not have any stores in Israel (read here), might be subject to the measure, based on their "presence" as a funder of various Jewish and Zionist charities. In fact, anti-Israel activists have specifically targeted Starbucks for a boycott because of the support of its CEO Howard Schultz for Israel (read here and here). The boycott Starbucks movement has produced virulent anti-Semitic propaganda such as this. If Initiative 97 passes, Seattle's pension fund administrators may be forced to rule on whether charitable donations to Jewish institutions in Jerusalem constitute a "presence".

Seattle has relatively few Jews and little connection to Israel, but SDWO has attempted to capitalize on one local connection. The Seattle area was the home of Rachel Corrie, the Palestine Solidarity Movement activist killed by a Caterpillar bulldozer in Gaza. SDWO has played on this connection, blaming the Caterpillar corporation for Corrie's death and going so far as to claim that Initiative 97 would only mandate divestment in two companies: Halliburton and Caterpillar.

One local connection to anti-Israel terrorism took place just two years ago in 2006 when the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle (located in the 36th LD) was the subject of a horrible terrorist attack by a Muslim proclaiming opposition to Israel (read here and here). Six women were shot in that attack, including one who was 17 weeks pregnant. One of the victims died.

The Referendum's Sponsors

Initiative 97's organizational sponsors (listed here) have a history of opposing Israel's existence, supporting a "one-state solution" and advocating complete boycott of Israel. Some of them have even come out in favor of suicide bombing and terrorism. This advocacy is not at all reflected in the literature they've published in support of the petition or on the petition itself.

One of the initiative's main sponsors is the Seattle Green Party, and one of the main endorsers is the Washington State Green Party. The Washington State Greens, like the U.S. Green Party, has a history of anti-Israel activism in addition to it's better known pacificism, anti-globalization and environmentalism. With respect to the presidential election, the Washington Greens voted for Cynthia McKinney, who is now the Green Party's presumptive presidential nominee (read here and here). (McKinney is still listed as a Democrat, not a Green, on the SDWO website, here.) McKinney, who has built her political career largely around her opposition to Israel, recently advocated the "Palestinian right of return" (a code word for a "one state solution") in a speech to an anti-Israel rally at the UN on the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding (read here: "Cynthia McKinney on Israel: ‘Not in my name’"). McKinney has formally endorsed the Seattle divestment referendum and promotes it on her website, albeit in deceptive terms. Her website states that the referendum "would block the city from investing its pension funds in corporations that benefit from the Iraq war, or from certain other Middle East military occupations." (Read here.)

The Greens elsewhere advocate a complete boycott of Israel in more open terms. In November 2005, a resolution (read here) of the national Green Party called for:
"civil society institutions and organizations around the world to implement a comprehensive divestment and boycott program (i.e. against Israel). Further, the party calls on all governments to support this program and to implement state level boycotts."
The U.S. Green Party is apparently extremely ambitious with respect to their influence on "all world governments".

In October, 2007, the U.S. Green Party again called for a complete "economic boycott", as well as an end to aid for Israel (read here). They made similar calls for a complete boycott in March 2008 (read here) and, in honor of Israel's 60th anniversary, here.

Considering the Green Party's history as the spoiler in the 2000 presidential election, one can only speculate as to their motivation in Seattle in 2008. A ballot measure such as this would almost certainly attract the attention of Republicans who would seek to tie it both to the Obama campaign and Washington State Democratic candidates.

Initiative 97 is also sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). This group has made the divestment movement their focus, especially with respect to groups such as the United Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Divestment advocates frequently cite Jewish Voice for Peace to counter charges that opposition to Israel is rooted in anti-Semitism (read here and here and this pdf). JVP, like the Green Party, goes so far as to call for a complete boycott of Israel (read here), a position which they do not generally reveal in their pro-divestment advocacy. They also recently sponsored a "Nakba" commemoration on the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel (read here). Liat Weingart, one of the groups leaders, recently lobbied the United Methodists to divest their pension funds from Israel. In the course of her speech to the United Methodist General Conference, she said “(i)f you haven’t been accused of anti-Semitism yet, you haven’t been doing the work of Justice.” The audience reportedly "gasped and laughed". (At that same conference, the Methodist Federation for Social Action voted against resolutions opposing anti-Semitism and calling for human rights in Muslim nations.) (Read here.) The Methodists, to their credit, ultimately voted against divestment and in support of the measures opposing anti-Semitism and for human rights.

Another of Initiative 97's sponsors, Palestine Solidarity Committee, Seattle, actively opposes a two state solution and opposes Israel's existence (read here), stating
We demand ...establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital toward the establishment of a secular democratic state in historic Palestine.
Nothing on the SDWO website or in the pro-referemdum literature indicates this sponsor's opposition to the existence of Israel.

Similarly opposed to Israel's existence is Initiative 97 sponsor ANSWER. (Read about ANSWER here.) That group's record of opposition to Israel's existence is simply too extensive to cover in this forum. Suffice it to say that their extremism on this issue even got them on the fighting side of such anti-war groups as United for Peace and Justice and the War Resisters League (two groups notably absent from the list of sponsors of Initiative 97). (Read here and here.)

Fight within local Democratic Party

One of the petition's main sponsors, Amy Hagopian, is actively campaigning to win the measure the Democratic Party's endorsement in Washington's 36th Legislative District. Hagopian, who is listed on the SDWO website as being unaffiliated to a political party (read here), is also attempting to get the Democratic Party to provide workers to gather signatures for the petition. If she succeeds in getting the local Democratic Party to approve her proposals, this would certainly be fodder for the Republicans in the upcoming presidential election. It would inevitably be tied to Obama. Whatever the ultimate fate of the petition, the actions of Democrats in this small legislative district in Washington State may have national importance.

The voters in the 36th LD tend to vote to the left. Seattle's Jewish population, and its awareness about Israel, is relatively low. Support for Israel in this sort of area is frequently portrayed as intrinsically neoconservative, pro-Likud or pro-Bush. The idea of progressive Zionism is a bit of a foreign concept there. The liberal voters of the 36th LD, who are being currently being lobbied quite intensely by the divestment advocates, would seem fertile ground for support for Initiative 97. On the other hand, local opponents of the measure are organizing to oppose supporting the measure and they're putting up a good fight to tying the Democratic Party to such an extreme anti-Israel measure.

Now the good news

A coalition of Jewish groups has filed suit to prevent the measure from reaching the ballot. In the first phase of the litigation, which dealt with the deceptive language of the petition, the judge decided that the language was "unclear" but not "misleading". He also decided that, while the language of the petition should be clarified, the signatures to the earlier, unclear version should still be counted in order to protect the rights of those who signed. My question concerning that is what about the rights of those who signed based on unclear language, but would not have signed has the meaning of the petition been plain?

Now here's the good part: an upcoming phase of the litigation deals with the question of whether the resolution would be enforceable even if it were to be placed on the ballot and approved. Seattle's pension funds are administered by a board which, while appointed by the City Council, operates independently of the council. This board is not subject to referendums, City Council resolutions, executive orders by the Mayor, etc. Under the statute which established the Pension Fund board, when deciding where to invest its funds, the board can consider only factors relating to the performance of its investments. The divestment advocates, for their resolution to pass judicial muster for their resolution, will have to prove that the broad range of companies which the referendum covers will actually have perform poorly as investments. In other words, they need to prove that stock in companies like Microsoft or Pizza Hut (both of which qualify for divestment under the plain language meaning of the referendum) will lose value as the result of their business with the State of Israel or in the specified geographic area. According to Robert Jacobs of Stand With Us Northwest, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the divestment advocates may find this extremely difficult to prove.

The Seattle City Attorney, which sided with the divestment advocates in the first phase of the litigation involving the deceptive language of the petition, has joined with the petition opponents in this phase of the litigation, further improving the odds that this referendum won't be on the November ballot. The question of what damage the divestment movement will do to the Democratic Party in the process remains to be seen.

British attorney Anthony Julius, has said with respect to the British academic union's Israel boycott resolution: "Going for a boycott is gesture politics in the first place but a resolution that comes close but avoids actually spelling it out is a gesture wrapped up in a gesture - it's nothing more than a bad smell." (Read here.) This is equally true of Seattle's deceptive divestment initiative. It just doesn't pass the smell test.

The Forward's May 21 report on Seattle's anti-Israel referendum is an excellent backgrounder: "Seattle Activists Try To Put Divestment Measure on City Ballot (by Rebecca Spence).

[As an aside on another issue: in researching the Washington State Greens for this story, I was surprised to discover the extent to which they promote "9/11 truth" conspiracy theories. I have a post on that subject here, cross-posted here. Cynthia McKinney has made "9/11 truth" a main plank of her platform (read here).]


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