Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Israel’s ‘boycott bill’ in context

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Key points

  • A controversial law approved yesterday in the Knesset bars Israelis from initiating boycotts on goods or organisations in ‘any specific geographic area.’ The bill is primarily intended to prevent boycotts of West Bank settlements.
  • The Knesset legal advisor has warned that the bill potentially infringes upon basic protections of the freedom of speech. Several rights groups have announced that they would challenge the legislation in Israel’s Supreme Court, which has a history of overturning unconstitutional legislation.
  • Though the legislation reflects the Israeli public’s growing sense of anxiety in the face of international criticism and isolation, it is strongly contested in Israel’s media and civil society.

What is the controversial ‘boycott bill’?

The Knesset passed a law yesterday (11/7) that would effectively ban Israelis from calling for boycotts of individuals or institutions in Israel or the West Bank. Forty-seven coalition MKs voted in favour of the bill, whilst 38 MKs opposed it. What is the impact of this legislation? What motivated its drafting? And how is it received in Israel’s public discourse?

The ‘boycott bill’, sponsored by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), would allow citizens to bring civil suits against persons or organisations that call for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of Israel, Israeli institutions or regions under Israeli control. The bill does not require the petitioner to prove the damage was caused, but only that the damage could reasonably have been expected as a result of the boycott call. It covers all calls for boycotts of people or institutions with ties to ‘the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage.’ It would also prevent the government from doing business with companies that initiate or comply with such boycotts. Although the bill has been associated with recent calls for boycotting settlement goods and institutions, the law will also apply in the case of calls for a boycott on Israeli Arab goods or businesses.

The Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, questioned the legality of the new bill. ‘The broad definition of a boycott on the State of Israel is a violation of the core tenet of freedom of political expression and elements in the proposed bill are borderline illegal,’ Yinon said in a letter. He added that a clause in the bill is in violation of constitutional law, which could potentially pave the way for legal challenges in the Supreme Court.

Shortly after the bill was passed, a coalition of left-wing groups announced that they would appeal to the Supreme Court and challenge the law; one group, Gush Shalom, has already filed an appeal. Peace Now has also launched an online campaign calling for the boycott of settlement goods as a public defiance act against the bill. On the other hand, MK Michael Ben-Ari of the right-wing National Union party announced after the vote that he intends to be the first to use the new law and press charges against an Israeli company working with the Palestinian Authority.

What is the background to the passing of the bill?

The bill comes in the wake of several calls within Israeli society for the boycott of institutions linked to West Bank settlements. Earlier this year, a group of Israeli academics signed a petition calling for a college in the West Bank settlement of Ariel to be boycotted. Last year, 53 leading Israeli artists signed a statement pledging not to perform at a cultural centre at the same settlement. Other groups have called for a boycott of products manufactured or grown in West Bank settlements.

Settlement boycotts have also been promoted by the Palestinian Authority, which has passed legislation against the use of settlement produce. Israeli companies that have competed for tenders issued by the PA have also been made to commit to avoiding doing business in Israeli municipalities in the West Bank. For example, Israeli construction companies involved in the construction of the new Palestinian city of Rawabi have reportedly had to cease all involvement in settlement construction. Such demands have enraged settler groups and politicians, and have led to increasing efforts to combat these phenomena.

Although the bill is fiercely contested by left-wing groups, it reflects a growing sense of Israeli isolation and anxiety in the face of mounting international criticism. Far from undisputed, Israeli settlements in the West Bank have stood at the centre of the country’s public debate for over four decades. Many Israelis also support the removal of at least some settlements in a final status agreement with the Palestinians.

However, a growing number of Israelis feel that Israel faces unfair international campaigns that seek to isolate and undermine its international legitimacy. After repeated attempts to reach a final status accord failed, and after Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza was followed by Hamas coming into power there, many Israelis feel that Palestinian intransigence is the cause of the ongoing conflict.

As a result of Israelis’ sense of injustice at the international campaign challenging Israel’s legitimacy, tolerance towards domestic activism against the occupation has been eroded. In making the case for his bill, MK Elkin made a connection between internal political activism against the settlements and the international boycott campaign. He argued that ‘the fact that the calls to boycott the State of Israel increasingly have come from within our own midst, makes it hard to wage a battle against a boycott in the world.’

The agitated response to international criticism crosses traditional political divisions. An anonymous parliamentary source quoted in Maariv explained the politics behind the vote: ‘This is an issue that has supporters and opponents inside the Likud, just like in Kadima. This is more than a simple party issue; the fact of the matter is that Kadima helped draft the law before party members regretted it.’ Indeed, two Kadima MKs defied party discipline and abstained. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior ministers did not attend the vote, as did the entire faction of Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin of Likud tried to introduce moderations in the bill, but they were rejected. Rivlin also abstained from the vote.

Beyond the political wrangling, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Israelis are increasingly impatient with domestic criticism. These sentiments are partly the motivation behind controversial legislation initiatives of this sort.

How has the law been received in Israel?

Although the boycott bill received a parliamentary majority, it has received widespread criticism in the Israeli media. Yoaz Hendel, writing in Ynetnews, was one of the few mainstream commentators to defend the bill. He argued that it was a necessary act against those who repeatedly smear Israel. ‘Those who listen to the objectors may wrongly think that a democracy is only expected to encourage those who oppose it and call for boycotting or annihilating it. And what about a law in favour of the State?’

However, most of the mainstream press, including the more right-leaning Yisrael Hayom and Jerusalem Post, came out against the bill.

Israeli law professor Amnon Rubinstein, who in the past served as a minister on behalf of the liberal Shinui party, wrote in Maariv that the law contradicts Israel’s own laws, which safeguard basic rights and freedoms. ‘Freedom of expression is assured explicitly in [Israel’s] Declaration of Independence and hinted at in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and the MKs who voted for [the new law] essentially voted against the Declaration of Independence.’

Others have warned that the bill paradoxically strengthens those who accuse Israel of compromising basic civil and human rights. Prominent Maariv columnist Ben Caspit reiterated his adamant opposition to those who promote the boycott campaigns, but noted that the latest bill will be counterproductive in fighting these initiatives. Critics outside of Israel ‘won’t see the difference. Out there they are liable to go with a sweeping boycott, of everything. The Israeli law won’t scare them, it will only spur them on.’ The Jerusalem Post warned that ‘stifling of criticism may just achieve the opposite, by providing Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions proponents with a truly worthy cause to champion – their own right to freedom of expression.’ The left-wing Haaretz described the bill as a ‘politically opportunistic and anti-democratic act.’

Opposition to the bill goes beyond legal objections or complaints about its adverse impact on Israel’s image. It regards the erosion of Israel’s long tradition of open public debate and its ability to be attentive to and withstand criticism. Whilst Israeli public debate has always been polarised over the issue of settlements and Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the passing of the latest bill undermines what the Jerusalem Post editorial described as Israel’s ‘open market of ideas.’

Conclusion

The new bill will likely be contested in Israel’s Supreme Court in the coming weeks. The preliminary opinion of the Knesset legal advisor suggests that there is a high probability that the law will be deemed unconstitutional and struck off. However, the debate about West Bank settlements, and the boundaries of democratic norms and civil discourse more broadly, will continue and dominate Israeli public discourse in the future.