Coalition whip MK David Bitan (Likud) announced Saturday his intention to promote legislation barring Israelis from calling for sanctions against the state in international forums authorized to impose such measures.
The move is designed to ban comments such as those of B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad, who during a special session of the UN Security Council on Israeli settlements last week called on the member states to act to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Bitan's remarks came a day after he said he will be seeking to strip El-Ad of his Israeli citizenship.
Read more: My UN speech reflected love for Israel, truth about settlements | Israel's human rights defenders won't be intimidated or silenced | Americans for Peace Now, you made a mistake in appearing before the UN.
Bitan's intentions are nothing but a statement at this time. Since the bill has not been drafted yet, it is impossible to speculate about its legality or its chances of passing into law.
Chairman of the opposition, MK Isacc Herzog, blasted the initiative, saying that should it be put up to vote "we will fight it from the opposition." MK Tzipi Livni, Herzog's co-chair of the Zionist Union party, said that even if the initiative is not translated into real legislation "this type of poisonous rhetoric is destroying Israel from within and from without. The damage they cause to Israel's standing abroad is much bigger than any insignificant organization."
According to Bitan, his bill would not prohibit the voicing of opinions of any kind, but would only bar Israelis from demanding concrete actions against Israel, including imposing sanctions against it.
A Haaretz inquiry found that Bitan has yet to consider related issues, such as if the bill would allow Israeli organizations to send reports to international institutions detailing demands for such actions against the Israeli government. A request by Haaretz from Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party members for their position on Bitan's initiative was left unanswered.
The so-called Boycott Law, which was passed in Knesset in 2011, already penalizes persons or organizations who call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott of Israel or the settlements. Under this law, a person or a company that declares such boycott will not be able to bid in government tenders.
On Saturday, Bitan told Channel 2's "Meet the Press" that El-Ad's remarks were an "explicit breach of trust by an Israeli citizen against the state, and as such he should find himself another citizenship." He said he was considering asking Interior Minister Arye Dery to revoke El-Ad's citizenship over his remarks.
The whip of Habayit Hayehudi Knesset faction, MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, and her party member Bezalel Smotrich, said they opposed the move. “Hagai El-Ad crossed a red line but that is a far cry from rescinding his citizenship,” Smotrich said.
Responding to Bitan, B’Tselem said: “For almost 50 years the Palestinians have had no citizenship and no rights, and now the prime minister’s emissary wants to rescind the citizenship of a person who speaks out against this.” The anti-occupation human rights group said threats would not stop them, “and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the occupation.”
The coalition and the opposition had trouble deciding whether to take Bitan’s intention seriously. It is not clear whether it will be acted on and many of the lawmakers said they preferred not to respond so as not to add fuel to the fire in the media.
Meretz Chairwoman MK Zahava Galon harshly criticized the silence of the opposition leaders, including opposition chairman MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union), Zionist Union co-leader MK Tzipi Livni (who responded later in the evening) and Yesh Atid chairman, MK Yair Lapid.
According to Galon, Bitan’s statements were a new level of harassment of leftist activists in Israel. “Bitan is only trying to derive a little more political benefit on the backs of B’Tselem, but such calls are dangerous and are very close to calling for bloodshed. Democracy is a basic right, not a gift given to those look good to the coalition chairman. It’s open season,” Galon said.
Other opposition lawmakers were also critical of Bitan’s remarks. “Speeches in the UN are not the way to change government policy and bills opposing freedom of expression are not the way to prevent speeches in the UN,” MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union) said.
Zionist Union MK Miki Rosenthal said: “Bitan learned from (Culture) Minister Miri Regev and has become a generator of empty headlines and bills that will never pass. I doubt that his voters buy his foolishness but the damage this man does to Israel’s international image only grows.”
'We need your help'
In his recent address to a UN Security Council session on the settlements, El-Ad urged the world to step in and help Israel put an end to the occupation.
"How many more Palestinian homes must be bulldozed before the realization sinks in that words that are not backed up by action do no more than indicate to Israel that it may carry on?”
El-Ad told the Security Council: "We need your helpthe rights of the Palestinians must be realized; the occupation must end; the UN Security Council must act; and the time is now.”
The representative of Americans for Peace Now, Lara Friedman, also addressed the Security Council session.
Following El-Ad’s address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted B’Tselem “fleeting and bizarre.”
"What these organizations cannot achieve through democratic elections in Israel, they try to achieve by international coercion,” Netanyahu said, adding that he would take steps to remove B’Tselem from the list of organizations in which young Israelis can do their national civilian service there. B’Tselem is entitled to a single national service volunteer, but this slot is currently unmanned. In the past, the National Service Authority has tried to cancel the NGO's allotment of volunteers, but this effort was thwarted by the attorney general.
Following the Israeli attack on B’Tselem, State Department spokesman John Kirby told Haaretz on Monday that the administration values the information published by the two nonprofits about the situation in the West Bank and stressed that governments should defend freedom of speech. "In general, we believe that a free and unfettered civil society is a critical component of democracy. As we have said many times, we believe it is important that governments protect the freedoms of expression, and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard,” adding: "We are troubled by instances anywhere in the world where these principles are threatened.
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