US Senate passes bill fighting Israel boycott movement

Republicans attempted to table the bill during the shutdown, but were required to delay

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at Iglesia Doral Jesus Worship Center on the political crisis in Venezuela on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The US Senate passed a controversial measure on Tuesday to shield Israel from boycotts, but its adoption remains uncertain in the Democratically-controlled House, where liberal members of Congress warn the approach tramples free-speech rights.

The Middle East security bill aims to combat the global BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement that denounces Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and puts pressure on companies that do business with the Israel.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the measure's sponsor, said he is pushing back against what he described as a "campaign of discriminatory economic warfare against Israel".

It would allow a state or local government "to divest from entities that engage in" BDS activities targeting Israel or persons or companies doing business in Israel.

The text also authorises arms transfers to Israel, expands military co-operation with Jordan and slaps new sanctions on Syria.

It was approved by 77 votes to 23, with all but one Republican voting yes. The Democrats were split, 25 for and 22 against.,

Notably, all of the Senate's likely Democratic presidential contenders except Amy Klobuchar voted against the legislation.

The bill goes to the House of Representatives, where several members of the new Democratic majority have expressed opposition,  warning it could suppress constitutionally protected free speech.

They include the first two Muslim women to serve in the House, Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, a former Somali refugee.

Both were elected in November and are part of an ascendant wing of progressives shaking up the Democratic old guard.

Some have used strident language in accusing the pair of supporting a movement critics say is aimed at destroying Israel.

There are Democratic stalwarts who are allies of Israel, like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who defend Omar and Tlaib against accusations of anti-Semitism but support fighting the anti-Israel boycott.

"My sister Rashida and I have been fighting against anti-Semitism, any effort to deny that is a smear," Omar tweeted Tuesday. "We are pro-peace and realise without justice there is no peace!"

The American Civil Liberties Union supports the right to boycott, and came out against the measure.

"Today, the Senate chose politics over the Constitution and trampled on the First Amendment rights of all Americans," ACLU senior legislative counsel Kathleen Ruane said in a statement.