Coalition Wants Israel Off Trade ‘Watch’ List

Posted April 25, 2007 at 6:35pm

A coalition of influential Jewish organizations, with the support of Israeli-based Teva Pharmaceuticals, is urging many Members of Congress to pressure the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to take Israel off a “priority watch list” reserved for countries that do not have adequate protections for intellectual property rights.

The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith, United Jewish Communities and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations are among the organizations lobbying on behalf of Israel, said Hadar Susskind of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is spearheading the effort. Last year, a smaller number of Jewish organizations pressed the USTR on the same issue when, they said, the name-brand U.S. pharmaceutical industry was unfairly targeting Israel because of a marketplace dispute with Teva, a huge maker of generic drugs.

“The idea this year was to make sure that as many people as possible in the Jewish community were aware of this issue,” Susskind said. “I wish Teva well, but it’s not my job to argue for their economic interests, but the fact that you’re going to be limiting medicines to people in Israel is unconscionable. And that’s why I got involved.”

Last year, the pharmaceutical lobbying group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, asked the USTR to categorize Israel as a “priority foreign country,” which is reserved for the worst offenders and could have subjected Israel to sanctions. This year, a spokesman for PhRMA said the industry has not asked the USTR to downgrade Israel’s status but asked for it to remain the same.

And PhRMA has been quieter this year. “We haven’t talked about this on the Hill,” said PhRMA spokesman Mark Grayson.

A lobbyist for Teva did not return a call seeking comment.

An official with the USTR, who would speak only on background, said the agency invites comments from all sectors and interest groups before the April 30 report is released.

“Countries placed on the Priority Watch List are the focus of increased bilateral attention concerning the problem areas,” said the USTR source in an e-mail, adding that being on the list “may shape international perceptions of the level of a country’s commitment to” IP rights and innovation.

The Jewish groups, saying they want to stand up for Israel’s advances in IP protections, have ramped up their message and this week sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab asking “that Israel be removed from the priority watch list.” The letter added that Israel’s designation on the list “places more demands on that state than on many other democratic U.S. allies. We feel this disparity is unjustified and regrettable.”

Susskind said the letter also would be sent to Members and other administration officials “to make sure that everybody is aware of our concerns surrounding the issue” and to encourage more Hill support for their cause.

Already more than 20 House Members and at least three Senators have penned their own letters to Schwab. The House letter, led by Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), urges the USTR to remove Israel from the list and asks for USTR to provide Congress with a rationale for how it determines who goes on the list, which last year also included China and Ukraine. “It is our understanding that Israel’s intellectual property protections far exceed the levels of protection” of similarly ranked countries, said the Senate letter from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

A spokeswoman for Schwartz said the Congresswoman has taken up the issue because she “believes that trade relations with Israel are a key component to our relationship with Israel, and she is concerned that Israel’s designation is harmful.”

A lobbyist working the issue said even though U.S. pharmaceutical companies have toned down their pressure on Israel, the industry still wants to keep the Middle East ally on the priority watch list. “It’s really about using a political tool for economic reasons,” said this lobbyist, adding that name-brand companies still are at odds with generic-maker Teva.