Ministries Cry Foul: 'Boycott Law' Will Hurt Foreign Ties

Controversial bill put forth by 24 Knesset members, including Kadima party whip Dalia Itzik, coalition chairman Zeev Elkin and committee chairman David Rotem.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee yesterday approved the "boycott law," which if passed would levy harsh punitive fines on Israelis who call for academic or economic boycotts against Israeli institutions.

The bill was approved in July by the Knesset plenum in a preliminary reading. It will now go back to the Knesset for a first reading.

Coalition whip Zeev Elkin
Olivier Fitoussi

The controversial bill was put forth by 24 Knesset members, including Kadima party whip Dalia Itzik, coalition chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud ) and committee chairman David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ).

The draft law calls for imposing sanctions on foreign nationals and organizations that called for anti-Israel boycotts, as well as states that pass legislation giving such boycotts the force of law.

The Ministries of Justice, of Foreign Affairs and of Industry, Trade and Labor are fiercely opposed to the bill, on the grounds that it will not achieve its stated purpose of curbing boycotts and will only hamper efforts to cope with boycotts and the delegitimization of Israel on the international level.

Representatives of these ministries told the committee that the law would violate the right to freedom of expression and could damage Israel's relations with the European Union and the Foreign Ministry's freedom of action.

The preamble to the bill states that its aim is "to protect the State of Israel in general and its citizens in particular from academic, economic and other boycotts targeting the state, its citizens and its corporations because of their connection to the state.

The draft law distinguishes among boycotts by Israeli residents or citizens; by foreign residents or nationals; and by foreign states, through legislation. It explicitly includes boycotts that affect the West Bank, such as boycotts of goods and services originating in the Jewish settlements there.

Under the provisions of the bill, the court could levy a fine of up to NIS 30,000 on Israeli citizens calling for or taking party in boycotts against Israel. Foreign citizens who violate the law could be prohibited from entering Israel for 10 years or more. Foreign states that pass laws leading to a boycott of Israel or of Israeli products could be barred from carrying out transactions in Israeli bank accounts and from trading in Israeli stocks, land or real estate. In addition, the state could suspend the transfer of payments owed to the states. Israeli citizens who have suffered damage as a result of the boycott could sue for compensation, to be paid out of the frozen funds.

Elkin said that while under U.S. law, participating in a boycott against Israel is punishable by up to five years in prison, there is no equivalent law in Israel. "The time has come to end this absurd situation," he said. "A citizen who takes action against the state must know that he will bear the consequences."

"The bill will not help and could even hurt the state's ability to contend with boycotts," the Foreign Ministry's legal advisor, Ehud Kenan, told the committee. "In our opinion, the fight should take place mainly in the states where the boycotts are initiated. Israel has tools at its disposal. Foreign nationals who declare a boycott against Israel can already be barred from entering the country. Organizations that oppose Israel can be denied a license."

Some MKs who attended yesterday's committee session argued that the bill does not clearly define the term "boycott" or the sanctions to be imposed against those who violate its terms.

"Does a boycott mean not buying Israeli products, does it mean not visiting Israel, or does it mean calling on [others] not to buy Israeli products or to visit Israel?" MK Nitzan Horowitz (New Movement-Meretz ) asked.

Other MKs who voiced their objections to the bill included Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ), Dov Khenin (Hadash ) and Talab al-Sana (United Arab List-Ta'al ).

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute, told the committee that the draft law constitutes an almost unimaginable blow to freedom of expression, and said that there are "democratic ways to take action against boycotts of the state." He said that he would have no objection to the bill were it modeled on similar laws in other states.