February 5, 2019 / 10:47 PM / in 6 months

Senate passes pro-Israel bill, measure also rebukes Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate passed a Mideast policy bill on Tuesday including a measure that would allow states to penalize businesses that take part in boycotts of Israel and an amendment that breaks with President Donald Trump by opposing any plans for an abrupt withdrawal of troops from Syria.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to the media after a Senate Republican Caucus lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The Senate backed the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act by a lopsided 77-23 on Tuesday, hours before Trump was to deliver his annual State of the Union speech discussing his policies for the year.

Trump is expected to discuss foreign policy in the address to a joint session of Congress, including declaring the Islamic State militant group all but defeated.

Many members of Congress, including several fellow Republicans, strongly disagree with a plan Trump announced in December to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria on the grounds that the militant group no longer posed a threat.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who rarely breaks from Trump, introduced the non-binding amendment passed on Tuesday. It acknowledged progress against Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria and Afghanistan but warned that “a precipitous withdrawal” could destabilize the region and create a vacuum that could be filled by Iran or Russia.

The amendment called on the Trump administration to certify conditions had been met for the groups’ “enduring defeat” before any significant withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan.

The bill also includes provisions supported by both Republicans and Democrats to impose new sanctions on Syria and guarantee security assistance to Israel and Jordan. Those are seen as efforts to reassure allies worried about shifts in U.S. policy, including Trump’s Syria plan.

To become law, however, the bill would need to pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, where it is unlikely to move without significant changes because of concerns about the provision addressing the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” movement targeted at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Opponents of that provision argue that Americans’ participation in boycotts is protected by the constitutional right to free speech.

(This story corrects paragraph 7 to show that the bill includes several provisions)

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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