It’s reported today that, as expected, a range of Israeli civil rights organisations will file legal challenges against that country’s new law against boycotts.
According to the BBC, the high court will be petitioned to declare the law unconstitutional, while other groups have already commenced a campaign of civil disobedience.
The law, approved by the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) on Monday, prohibits the advocacy of a boycott against goods or services from Israel or from the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Its supporters claim it is necessary to counter a widespread move to “delegitimise” Israel, but its critics say that measures like this actually do more to delegitimise it than any action of the country’s enemies.
Israel’s much vaunted status as the “only democracy in the middle east” seems to be under simultaneous attack from two directions. Its Arab neighbors — first Lebanon and now Egypt, with Jordan and Syria in the queue — are moving towards democracy, to the tune of much Israeli scepticism, even as Israel itself under the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu has been steadily heading in the opposite direction.
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As the Jewish newsletter Forward in New York put it, “comparing Israel to its struggling neighbors sets such a low standard of democratic performance that it hardly seems worth the trouble.”
The new law is a direct attack on free speech. There’s nothing unlawful about even an Israeli consumer choosing not to buy particular goods — no-one can be forced to shop in an approved fashion, or to attend concerts in the occupied territories. But now the advocacy of such legal acts will put people at risk of ruinous damages, with no need to prove any actual harm.
Yet even that could perhaps be justified as an emergency measure in a state under siege from dangerous enemies, as Israel claims to be. What puts this law so completely beyond the pale is that these draconian powers are being deployed not just in defence of Israel, but in defence of its illegal settlements.
Throughout the 44 years it has been occupied, successive Israeli governments have acknowledged, often grudgingly, that as a matter of international law the West Bank (apart from East Jerusalem) is not part of Israel and that some of it at least will one day have to be relinquished as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Likud when in opposition had originally called for its annexation, but it has never tried to implement that in office.
The reason why is obvious: integrating the West Bank into Israel means somehow dealing with its 1.5 million or so Palestinian inhabitants.
Admitting them to Israeli citizenship would imperil the state’s Jewish character, but the alternatives of permanent ghettoisation or expulsion are still the province of a small circle of extremists.
Extremism, however, is becoming more and more mainstream, and it’s hard to make any sense of the new law except on the assumption that Israel stands or falls with the settlements, and that the settlers have graduated from fringe troublemakers to being at the heart of Israeli policy.
Likud Finance minister Yuval Steinitz, for example, said that “boycotts against the settlements or any other region of the country are not a democratic way to determine democratic oversight.” But the settlements are not a “region” of Israel, they are occupied territory.
Netanyahu himself, like several of his senior ministers, was absent for the vote on the law, which passed with 47 votes to 38 in the 120-seat Knesset. But yesterday he countered suggestions that he privately opposed the law, saying “If I hadn’t approved, it wouldn’t have gotten here and it wouldn’t have passed”.
Nonetheless, for Netanyahu this is a problem he really doesn’t need.
With a peace process going nowhere and less credit than ever in the White House, it’s not a good time for the world to be reminded that the logic of Likud’s positions is leading away from democracy and into comradeship with the advocates of genocide.