Israel’s parliament late Monday approved a controversial law banning boycotts against the state and Jewish settlements, a retaliatory move against growing calls for economic and political pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank amid stagnant peace talks with the Palestinians.
The law fines groups or individuals that promote anti-Israel or antisettlement boycotts and exposes them to lawsuits of nearly $10,000 without having to prove any damage.
Though proponents argue that the law is necessary to protect Israeli citizens against campaigns to delegitimize Israel and make it into a pariah state, the bill’s passage has raised a storm of criticism alleging that the measure erodes the country’s democracy and will ultimately weaken its international standing.
"This is a blatant and a resounding shutting of people's mouths. This is a thought police," wrote Ben Caspit, a columnist for the daily newspaper Maariv. "The news of this law passing will spread throughout the world like a fire in a field of thorns … . Our image, already at a low, will continue to scrape the bottom of the barrel. The delegitimization will increase."
The breakdown of peace talks has prompted the Palestinian Authority to promote an economic boycott on anything manufactured in the Jewish settlements or with links to towns in lands claimed by the Palestinians as part of a future state.
There is also concern about efforts of pro-Palestinian activists to lobby for international sanctions against Israel, such as the exclusion of academics from conferences abroad.
However, the law is also aimed an Israeli doves who have called on the public to boycott visiting the settlements and to avoid buying goods made there. Last year, a group of state-employed actors refused to participate in a performance by Israel’s national theater company in the settlement of Ariel, stirring a furor.
"The Knesset has put an end to the stupidity of boycotts emanating within our midst," says Zeev Elkin, the parliamentary whip for the ruling Likud Party. "The boycott law isn’t meant to shut people up but defend the citizens of Israel."
The law was criticized by the Palestinian Authority, which said that the law would empower the government to sanction international groups that boycott the settlements. The bill "sends a clear message that Israel is not committed to a two-state solution," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in a statement.
Israeli critics said that the law would penalize only certain types of boycotts and that it reflects a blow to minority rights in Israel. It’s the latest in a line of legislation backed by Israel’s rightist parliament that critics say erodes the country’s democratic principles.
"This is a proposal that purports to prevent 'damage to the state of Israel' via a boycott," wrote Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law professor at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, "but it actually undermines criticism and political protest against ruling policies. This is liable to have a chilling effect... and injure freedom of expression."
Rights groups vowed to petition Israel’s High Court against the law. The boycott law has already drawn fire from parliament’s legal adviser, who said the legislation could very well be found unconstitutional. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was notably absent from the vote, a move which commentators suggested reflected his discomfort with the law.
In the prime minister’s address to the US Congress in May, he bragged about Israel’s commitment to democracy and the rights enjoyed by the country’s one-fifth minority. Critics said the new law will undermine Israel’s moral authority to call for democratic reform among Middle East neighbors.
"After the passing of this law, how can the Israeli government expect the people of Iran to back sanctions against their own country and to rise up against Iran's rulers, when Israelis can no longer call for a boycott against their own country?" says Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli expert on Iran.