The penalties for violating the anti-boycott law are severe.
a fine of up to $50,000 or five times the value of the product boycotted –
whichever is greater – and imprisonment for up to five years and in some cases
up to 10.
Companies that comply with boycotts can also lose their export
privileges and be barred from operating.
It is no wonder the law that
passed in the Knesset Monday night attracted so much attention and dominated the
headlines this week.
There’s only one problem. The penalties referred to
above are part of the Export Administration Act of 1979 – in the United States,
not in Israel.
The American law was intended to prevent US companies from
supporting the boycott of Israel instituted by the Arab League. The US
Department of Commerce website lists examples of violations of the law by
companies, based in several Muslim countries, that were punished.
Israeli law, by contrast, has no criminal element or stated penalty. It merely
allows citizens to bring civil suits against people and organizations that call
for economic, cultural, or academic boycotts against Israel, Israeli
institutions, or “regions under Israeli control.” It also prevents the
government from doing business with companies that initiate or comply with
So why was there such a brouhaha over the boycott bill? The
answer – as usual – comes down to politics. Both the Left and the Right had an
interest in keeping the bill at the top of the news.
There was just one
man who had a vested interest in keeping things quiet: Prime Minister Binyamin
The Left has an interest in painting Netanyahu as a right-wing
extremist who conspires with the settlers against the legal establishment, the
rule of law, and the international community. They want the public to think the
world is upset at the Israeli government and that the Jewish state is becoming
Left-wing organizations intensified their efforts
against the boycott bill after it had already passed, in an effort to create a
public atmosphere that would encourage the High Court to reject the bill and
discourage wavering MKs from supporting bills that would take action against
those organizations, which will come to a vote next week.
goal of the Left is to persuade centrists that Netanyahu has resumed his battles
against the elites, which helped end his first term
Netanyahu was toppled by the Right following the Wye River
Accord, but it was the centrists who laid the foundation for his
The Right has an interest in targeting those very same elites
in the legal establishment, who are extremely unpopular among that constituency,
and the international community, which is seen by the Right as hopelessly
anti-Israel. Sponsors of such legislation would be more popular among the hawks
loyal to Likud activist Moshe Feiglin, who dominate the party’s membership that
will choose its next Knesset slate.
Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin
(Likud) initiated the bill following reports that companies had accepted
contracts to build the new Palestinian city of Rawabi that were contingent on
accepting boycotts of Israeli settlements.
Efforts by actors to boycott a
new cultural center in Ariel also inspired the bill.
But Elkin blames the
media attention on the Left. Had the Kadima MKs who initially sponsored the bill
with him not been persuaded to turn against it, he said, he would have been able
to pass it by consensus without making waves.
Stuck in the middle,
between media-hungry politicians and non-governmental organizations on both the
Left and the Right, was Netanyahu, who apparently tried unsuccessfully to
On Sunday afternoon, he told Elkin that he wasn’t sure whether the
bill should be postponed because of the Quartet meeting taking place in
Washington and because of the legislation’s legal ramifications. Elkin told him
he was willing to wait a week to prevent diplomatic damage to Israel, but that
delays would only increase pressure.
Hours later, Netanyahu’s associates
briefed Hebrew newspapers ahead of their deadlines, without his knowledge, that
he would likely support a delay. But when he emerged from a late-night inner
security cabinet meeting about the Quartet, the prime minister said he had made
no such decision.
The newspapers were forced to spend vast sums on
printing second editions with opposite headlines in the middle of the night.
Only The Jerusalem Post
had the right headline from the start, because a
different Netanyahu aide had provided correct information. When the Post
objected to not being given the same late-night briefing as the other
newspapers, the prime minister’s spokesman said it was the first time a reporter
had complained about being the only one with the correct
Netanyahu did not delay the vote, but he also didn’t show up
for it. A source close to him said he was visiting his father-in-law, Shmuel
Ben-Artzi, on his death bed at Hadassah-University Medical Center, Ein Kerem,
but the mystery of the prime minister’s whereabouts was perpetuated by his
spokesman saying he “could not address the issue” of Netanyahu’s absence. The
prime minister didn’t show up at the Knesset at all that day, missing a vote of
no-confidence in his government for the first time.
In his Knesset speech
Wednesday, Netanyahu came out firmly in support of the bill and said it never
would have passed without his blessing.
But he also made a point of
defending the High Court in his speech and later leaking that he would not back
Israel Beiteinu’s bill to form a parliamentary inquiry committee for
investigating NGOs, or Elkin’s new proposal to initiate hearings for High Court
Netanyahu was careful to not open up a front against the legal
establishment and elites, but also to not be seen as being dragged behind hawks
in his coalition. When he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office two years ago,
he vowed to learn from the mistakes he made in his first term. But two of those
mistakes – fighting the elites and not keeping his coalition strong – clashed
The week would undoubtedly have gone a lot easier for
Netanyahu had Israel had the same laws as the United States. American law is
tougher on boycotters, but it’s easier on presidents.
four years in office, so they don’t have to worry about getting toppled.