Israeli activists in Jerusalem demonstrate against proposed legislation… (Sebastian Scheiner, Associated…)
Reporting from Jerusalem — Israel's right-leaning parliament approved a hotly disputed law Monday that will penalize those who organize or publicly endorse political boycotts against the country, including campaigns directed at Israeli universities, settlements and businesses in the West Bank.
Critics, including several prominent Israeli politicians, newspaper columnists and the parliament's legal advisor, questioned whether the law would withstand a Supreme Court challenge, saying it probably violates the right to free speech and free expression.
Under the new law, which was approved by a vote of 47 to 38 in the parliament, or Knesset, any boycott against Israel, including those organized by groups inside its territory and in the West Bank, will be deemed a civil offense, such as libel or defamation. Anyone targeted by such a boycott could file a civil lawsuit and seek damages from those who initiated or publicly supported it.
For example, the new Ariel performance center in the West Bank could sue artists who sign petitions against appearing at the facility as a way to protest the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory. Activists who organize a campaign to discourage consumers from buying wine produced in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967, could be forced to pay damages to the winery.
Palestinian leaders said passage of the law is a sign that Israel's government is not serious about withdrawing from the West Bank to facilitate creation of a Palestinian state. The measure "sends a clear message that Israel is not committed to a two-state solution," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Other critics said the law silences opposing political viewpoints, adding that under the regulation's broad language, even a Facebook comment expressing support for a boycott could trigger liability.
"I oppose boycotts, but this law is not good, not just, not constitutional and intended to prevent legitimate political debate in Israel," opposition leader Tzipi Livni told members of her centrist Kadima party.
The law's supporters, who include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said it would stem the tide of "delegitimization" of Israel and allow targets of boycotts to fight back.
"The law contains the checks needed in a democratic country to balance between the desire for freedom of expression and the individual's right to positions and criticism of government policy, while at the same time protecting the right of an individual or institution not to be done in by political elements," said Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, speaking Monday in support of the bill in the Knesset.
Analysts say the law appears aimed at left-wing Israeli groups and pro-Palestinian activists who in recent years have organized economic, cultural and academic boycotts against Israel in protest over its settlement policy in the West Bank.
Actions have included campaigns to discourage American rock stars from holding concerts in Israel, academic boycotts of Israeli universities and campaigns against Israeli-owned factories in the West Bank.
Some Palestinian developers in the West Bank recently began requiring the Israeli construction companies they use to agree to not purchase construction materials manufactured by Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
The law does not make such boycotts a crime, but it allows the government to punish individuals or groups who support or participate in such campaigns by banning them from receiving government contracts or enjoying certain tax benefits.
The legislation follows other controversial measures adopted over the last year, including a law that legalized the use of "admissions committees" that can reject would-be residents of certain small towns based on their social "suitability," a term that opponents fear will be used to screen out Arabs.
Another law allows the government to withhold funding from certain groups or municipalities that commemorate the so-called Nakba Day, which marks the displacement of about 700,000 Palestinians during Israel's creation in 1948.