Politics: The brouhaha over the boycott bill

Both the Left, the Right had an interest in keeping the bill at the top of the news, but only the PM had a vested interest in keeping quiet.

netanyahu cabinet meeting_311 reuters (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
netanyahu cabinet meeting_311 reuters
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
The penalties for violating the anti-boycott law are severe.
They include 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.
The 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 boycotts.
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 Netanyahu.
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 increasingly isolated.
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.
The ultimate goal of the Left is to persuade centrists that Netanyahu has resumed his battles against the elites, which helped end his first term prematurely.
Netanyahu was toppled by the Right following the Wye River Accord, but it was the centrists who laid the foundation for his downfall.
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 hide.
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 headline.
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 judges.
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 this week.
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.
They’re guaranteed four years in office, so they don’t have to worry about getting toppled.