Hillary Clinton is taking aim at the growing international movement to economically isolate Israel for its continued occupation of the West Bank — the latest indication of how hard the Democratic presidential candidate plans to work to win the support of influential Jewish donors wary of the Obama administration’s strained relationship with Israel and its ongoing nuclear talks with Iran.
In a two-page letter to Jewish billionaire Haim Saban, written on “Hillary for America” letterhead, Clinton promised to fight the so-called “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction” movement, or BDS, which has been gaining steam in both Europe and the United States.
“I know you agree that we need to make countering BDS a priority,” she wrote, adding that she wants Saban’s advice on how they could work together across party lines to “fight back against further attempts to isolate and delegitimize Israel.”
BDS was founded in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian organizations committed to putting economic pressure on Israel until it withdrew its settlers from Palestinian territories. The campaign quickly grew into an international movement to boycott the purchase of Israeli goods and to encourage divestment from the Jewish state. Some musicians have even canceled concerts or have refused to perform in Israel as an act of solidarity with the group.
But the loosely organized BDS push has been harshly criticized by Jewish organizations and American lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who say it wrongly focuses solely on Israel while ignoring the dismal human rights records of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. In her letter, Clinton reiterated her belief that BDS “seeks to punish Israel” and expressed concern over BDS activists’ comparisons of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.
Clinton’s letter to Saban was penned on July 2, three days after Obama signed a trade bill that contained anti-BDS wording discouraging European countries from participating in the boycott as a bargaining chip for free trade with the United States. The State Department later infuriated Republicans by rebuking some of the legislation’s phrasing, claiming it conflated the definitions of Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories.”
Clinton’s criticism of the BDS movement in the letter to Saban was the latest indication of how hard she plans to work to reassure jittery Jewish donors of her strong support for the Jewish state — and to defuse their concerns that a Clinton presidency would be marred by the same tensions with Israel as Obama’s has been.
Obama has been hammered by Republicans and some Democrats for his alleged hostility toward Israel, especially after a February interview with Vox in which the president referred to the deadly January attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris not as an act of anti-Semitism but instead as a case of criminals deciding to “randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”
Clinton’s efforts to separate herself from that facet of Obama’s reputation have coincided with treading other rough waters around her wealthy and strategically important Jewish donors, many of whom are wary of the Iran nuclear talks that Clinton has publicly supported and helped orchestrate as secretary of state.
In May, Saban — who earned his fortune in the entertainment industry — hosted Clinton and an inner circle of some of her wealthiest supporters for a $2,700-per-person fundraiser in Hollywood.
And in June, Saban reportedly teamed up with Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish mega-donor who backs Republican candidates, to organize a secret conference in Las Vegas on the growing threat of the BDS movement on college campuses in the United States.
On July 1, one day before the letter was written, Politico reported that Saban donated $2 million to a super PAC supporting Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Corrections, July 6, 2015: Hillary Clinton’s July 2 letter to Haim Saban was written three days after Barack Obama signed the trade bill that contained anti-BDS wording. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said the letter was written two days later. Also, the person Saban reportedly teamed up with to organize a secret conference in Las Vegas is Sheldon Adelson. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said his last name was Anderson.