Anti-boycott bill becomes law after passing Knesset

Bill to provide civil penalties for anyone calling for boycott on Israel, settlements; Knesset legal adviser: Legislation may fail High Court test.

Knesset session 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Knesset session 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The “Boycott Bill” was approved in its final reading in the Knesset on Monday night, after a plenum discussion that lasted nearly six hours and uncertainty throughout the day as to whether a vote would take place.
The bill passed with 47 in favor and 38 opposed, despite the fact that most Shas lawmakers were absent because of MK Nissim Ze’ev’s daughter’s wedding.
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In addition, many cabinet members – including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – did not attend the vote and the Independence faction chose not to participate.
Netanyahu’s spokesman would not comment on why the prime minister did not vote.
Earlier on Monday, the legislation’s sponsor, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), and like-minded MKs held a press conference in support of the anti-boycott bill, after Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and his deputies voted five to three to bring it to the plenum.
“This bill defends the State of Israel,” Elkin said. “We have no right to ask our allies to do the same, if an Israeli citizen can do as he wishes.”
The new law allows citizens to bring civil suits against persons 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 such boycotts.
Elkin defended the measure, calling it “vegetarian” and saying that its meat was removed when the clause making boycotts a criminal offense was removed.
“The law says that if you harm me [with a boycott], I have the right to ask for damages, and if you boycott the State of Israel, don’t ask it for benefits,” he said. “It was significantly softened.”
Elkin also said that “full coalition discipline” would be imposed, requiring every member of every coalition faction to vote in favor of the bill. In addition, opposition party National Union announced that it would vote in favor.
However, two hours after the plenum discussion began, Independence announced that, after an emergency meeting, it would vote against, because of “fundamental problems the bill has in relation to freedom of speech.”
On Sunday, the prime minister held a late-night meeting with advisers, and decided not to stop the bill from going to the plenum for a vote.
MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima), one of the bill’s most vocal opponents, sent a letter to Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon on Sunday, complaining that the bill may be unconstitutional.
In response, Yinon said the legislation was “borderline illegal,” but that he would not stop the Knesset from voting on it.
“The broad definition [in the law] of a boycott on the State of Israel is a violation of the core tenet of freedom of political expression,” Yinon wrote.
He added that the law’s “goal is to affect the political debate on the future of Judea and Samaria, a debate that has been at the heart of the political debate in the State of Israel for over 40 years.”
During Monday’s press conference, Likud MK Yariv Levin called Plesner’s letter “an attempted legal putsch” and a way to “sabotage the legislative process and sabotage the will of the majority.”
“Israel doesn’t have a constitution,” Levin pointed out. “An attempt to create one in the courts is anti-democratic.”
“If this law is challenged in the High Court,” MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) added, “the Knesset legal adviser said he would defend it.”
Shas and National Union MKs also spoke out in favor of the bill at the press conference.
After Monday’s plenum session began, Likud and Kadima power brokers reached an agreement that was meant to shorten the voting process, which was expected to continue past midnight. Only 20 Kadima MKs would speak, and they would limit their comments to five minutes each, according to the agreement.
However, the deal could not be enforced, and other opposition parties took full advantage of the time allotted to them, with some MKs speaking for 25 minutes, using colorful descriptions of the bill and those who proposed it.
“Right-wing MKs are bringing garbage to the Knesset under the guise of wanting to protect our national honor,” MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said. “This is a nauseating bill.”
“I wonder if there is even democracy in this country,” he said.
At the end of the discussion, after 10 p.m., Meretz removed its reservations on the bill in order to avoid spending the night in the plenum chamber.
United Arab List-Ta’al MK Ahmed Tibi took a more personal approach, looking for a psychological reason that may have caused Elkin to propose the bill.
“Maybe when he was a kid he was beaten up and boycotted?” Tibi asked. (The word “boycotted” can also mean “outcast” in Hebrew.)
Tibi also referred to a YouTube video of Pink Floyd lead singer Roger Waters reading a Jerusalem Post article on the “Boycott Bill” and calling for MKs to vote against it.
“You are shooting yourselves in the foot,” Tibi announced in the plenum.
MK Hanna Sweid (Hadash) said, “This is the government of Senator McCarthy, but with kippas.”
Kadima MK Nino Abesadze compared the coalition to the Soviet Union, in which people were sent to gulags for “not being Bolshevik enough.”
“Do you know what gulag means? It’s Stalin’s concentration camps!” she exclaimed. “You’re sending people to the gulag for their opinions.”
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said the bill should be sent back to committee for changes but he supported it in general terms.
Requesting changes to clause 4 of the bill, which puts much of the responsibility in the hands of the finance minister to decide whether a boycott has been called for, Steinitz said the ministry “does not want to be the lone high judge.”
The basic notion of the legislation, however, does not obstruct freedom of expression, the finance minister said.
“Democracy doesn’t mean that one group takes down another with economic power,” Steinitz said. “That is not an appropriate use of freedom of expression.”
Plesner also spoke out against boycotts, saying “I don’t think they’re the correct political tool.”
“However, I will fight for my political rival’s right to express his opinion with a boycott.
“There is no doubt that this bill will reach the High Court, and the Knesset legal adviser will have a difficult time defending it,” Plesner said.
MK Shlomo Molla, also of Kadima, mocked “Elkin-and Lieberman-style democracy,” saying that the coalition is attempting to “pass laws that will close the mouths of people with opinions they don’t like.
“Not allowing nonviolent protests will lead to violent protests,” he warned.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.