Boycott Law on Ice as Netanyahu Fears Backlash at Quartet Meeting

Knesset sources said Netanyahu expected to formulate final opinion on whether to push back vote.

The controversial "Boycott Law," which sets penalties for individuals or groups that calls for boycotting Israel or the settlements, is slated to come before the Knesset today for its second and third readings. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leaning toward postponing the vote, fearing that it would embarrass Israel to pass such a law just as the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers is meeting to discuss the Palestinians' bid for unilateral recognition as a state and efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Knesset sources said Netanyahu is expected to formulate a final opinion on whether to postpone the vote at a meeting this morning with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Another consideration likely to affect the decision is a last-minute bombshell thrown by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who plans to publish an opinion today criticizing the law as a severe infringement on freedom of expression.

Anti-Boycott Law protest - Emil Salman - July 2011
Emil Salman

"Everything is still open at this stage," a Knesset source said. "The decision on whether to bring the bill to a vote depends not just on legal opinions, but also on the bill's wider ramifications. The key to whether the bill will come up or not is very much in the hands of the prime minister."

The bill targets those who organize economic, cultural or academic boycotts against the settlements, such as the artists' boycott of the Ariel cultural center or the commitment by Israeli firms hired to work on the new Palestinian city of Rawabi that they would not use materials produced in the settlements.

The coalition is expected to support it, while the opposition, with the exception of the National Union party, will vote against it. In a rare move, all the factions opposing the bill plan to hold a joint press conference this afternoon to protest it.

The bill's sponsor, coalition chairman MK Zeev Elkin (Likud ), said yesterday that he might put off the vote by a week even if Netanyahu green-lights it, since he isn't certain he can muster a majority: Shas MK Nissim Zeev is marrying off a daughter this evening, and many coalition members are expected to attend the wedding. Nevertheless, he said, there is only about a 20 percent chance of the vote being delayed for this reason.

Yinon's opinion is expected to criticize the bill for infringing on freedom of expression and the right to protest, and he may even say he considers it unconstitutional. Rivlin agreed yesterday to let him present his opinion to the Knesset presidium and said that if it does point to serious constitutional problems with the bill, he would consider delaying the vote for further consultations with the prime minister, the justice minister and Elkin. Rivlin himself has already announced that he will not vote for the bill.

But Elkin and other Knesset officials did not think Yinon's opinion would cause any delay, noting that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had already approved the current version of the bill and agreed to defend it should it be challenged in the High Court of Justice. Several groups have already announced that they will petition the High Court against the law if it passes.

Kadima spent yesterday pressing faction members who supported the bill in the past, and especially those who cosponsored it, to withdraw their support. MK Dalia Itzik (Kadima ) said she withdrew her signature from the bill months ago and no longer supported it. MK Otniel Schneller refused to withdraw his cosponsorship, but is expected to abstain in the vote since faction discipline has been imposed.

Author Amos Oz, Prof. Yirmiyahu Yovel and the president of the Council for Peace and Security, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Nati Sharoni, were among those who signed a petition against the bill yesterday.

"The settlements are outside the borders of the State of Israel and therefore they are illegal: illegal under international law and illegal under the laws of natural justice," the petition read. "No one is meant to build outside the limits of his property. So any citizen who opts to refuse to participate in the settlements' fundamental criminality has the basic democratic right, if not the democratic duty, to do so."

Meanwhile, MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ) yesterday submitted a counter-bill that calls for labeling every product with where it was made and stating whether it was made in a settlement.

"As part of Israel's trade agreements with the European Union and the OECD, the Israeli government marks products that are made in the settlements," Gal-On said. "I want Israeli citizens to know what consumers in Europe are allowed to know - whether a product was made in Israel or in the settlements."

Opposition MKs also urged Rivlin to delay the vote. MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima ) warned in a letter to the speaker that the law would seriously harm Israeli agricultural exports.

"A plethora of lawsuits in Israel against parties calling for boycotts will actually lead to increased global solidarity with those calling for boycotts, and will indirectly lead to intensifying boycotts of Israeli exports," Hermesh wrote. "As you know, we are currently fighting a complicated battle for the survival of Agrexco, Israel's leading produce exporter, which is having serious financial difficulties. I think it would be irresponsible to pass legislation that is liable to deal another blow to Israeli produce exports."