Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
July 11, 2011 - 12:00am

The Israeli Parliament on Monday passed contentious legislation that effectively bans any public call for a boycott against the state of Israel or its West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offense.

Critics and civil rights groups denounced the new law as antidemocratic and a flagrant assault on the freedom of expression and protest. The law’s defenders said it was a necessary tool in Israel’s fight against what they called its global delegitimization.

Passage of the law followed a string of efforts in the rightist-dominated Parliament to promote legislation that is seen by the more liberal Israelis as an erosion of democratic values.

Some critics argued passage of the legislation against boycotts would further delegitimize Israel, which is facing increasing pressure over West Bank settlements that Palestinians regard as part of the territory for a future state. Continued construction in the settlements has been a major impediment in attempts to resume stalled peace talks.

The bill passed by 47 votes to 38. It relates to calls for economic, cultural or academic boycotts of the state, its institutions or any area under its control, a reference to occupied territories.

Offenders could face lawsuits and monetary penalties. Companies or organizations supporting a boycott could be disqualified from participating in bids for government work. Nonprofit organizations issuing boycott calls risk losing tax benefits.

The so-called Boycott Bill was sponsored by Zeev Elkin of the Likud, the conservative party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu was absent from the vote, as was the defense minister, Ehud Barak, who leads a small centrist faction in the governing coalition.

In an opinion issued earlier on Monday, the legal adviser of the Parliament, Eyal Yinon, determined that elements of the bill bordered on unconstitutionality and struck at the core of political freedom of expression. However, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein gave the bill his approval.

The speaker of the Parliament, Reuven Rivlin of the Likud, tried to introduce moderations in the bill, but they were rejected. Mr. Rivlin abstained from the vote.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and other human rights organizations said they were preparing to challenge the law in the High Court of Justice. The association described the law as “an antidemocratic step, intended to create a chilling effect on civil society.”

Ilan Gilon, a legislator from the leftist Meretz Party, said, “I do not know of anything that creates more delegitimization of Israel abroad than these laws.”

Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and other opponents of the law have pointed out that Israelis had recently launched their first successful consumer boycott, bringing down the price of cottage cheese. “Why should Israeli citizens be allowed to boycott Israeli cottage cheese, as we have heard and seen in recent weeks, but be barred from boycotting the occupation?” he said in a recent statement.

Last year, Israeli theater artists refused to perform at a new cultural center in the urban settlement of Ariel and in other West Bank settlements, causing a public uproar. They were followed by scores of leftist Israeli academics, writers and intellectuals who said that they would not lecture at the center or in any of the settlements.

A movement of Palestinians and foreign supporters has stepped up calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Their campaigns have led to a number of cancellations by international artists.

Mr. Elkin, the sponsor of the legislation, said that its principal importance was “the fact that the calls to boycott the State of Israel increasingly have come from within our own midst, and that makes it hard to wage a battle against a boycott in the world.”


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