Steve Weizman, AFP
Last updated: 13 July, 2011

Israel boycott ban law sets MPs against judges

Right-wing MPs warned judges on Wednesday not to overturn a controversial new ban on the boycott of Israel or Jewish settlements, insisting it was backed by Israel’s public as well as parliament.

The lawmakers were responding angrily after activists said they would challenge the law before Israel’s courts and legal experts warned the law would be unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny.

Two members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party said in response that they were proposing legislation to make future court appointments subject to confirmation by the Knesset.

At present nominations to the bench are made by consensus within the judiciary.

“The bill will break the hold of the radical left-wing elite on the judicial system,” public radio’s website quoted Zeev Elkin, one of the bill’s sponsors, as saying.

“This law will end the practice of Supreme Court judges bringing their friends (onto the bench).”

In an interview with public radio, Arieh Eldad, of the far-right National Union party, went further still, warning the court to “watch out.”

“It needs to remember at all times that if it tries to go over the heads of the Knesset, over the heads of the majority of the Israeli people, we shall seek legislation limiting its authority,” he said.

But Netanyahu said he was opposed to any attempt to shackle the court.

“He made it unequivocally clear that he opposes the bill,” a statement from his office said.

On Tuesday, Israeli anti-settlement lobby group Gush Shalom petitioned the court to strike down the so-called “boycott law” as “unconstitutional and undemocratic.” Other groups are expected to follow suit.

“It violates the right to freedom of expression and to equality, which are fundamental rights of citizens of Israel,” a Gush Shalom statement quoted the petition as saying.

“The parliamentary majority seeks, through the boycott law as by other pieces of legislation, to silence any criticism of government policy in general and of government policy in the occupied (Palestinian) territories in particular.”

Championed by supporters of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, the law passed despite the opposition of the Knesset’s own legal adviser, who warned the bill “collided directly with freedom of expression in Israel” and was likely to be overturned by the Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, British ambassador Matthew Gould told the mass-circulation daily Maariv that his country was uneasy with the new law.

“We are concerned about the passing of this law, which damages the legitimate right to freedom of speech and which conflicts with the strong Israeli tradition of lively and vigorous political debate,” he told the paper.

Netanyahu defended the boycott law on Wednesday, saying it was a proper response to those who questioned Israel’s legitimacy and that he had supported it and helped it reach the Knesset floor.

“This law was born from a democratic process in a democratic country and it is not this law which is staining Israel’s image in the world,” he told parliament in remarks broadcast by public radio.

“What is besmirching Israel’s image is unrestrained and irresponsible attacks against a legitimate attempt by a democracy seeking to defend itself, to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable,” he said amid heckling from opposition members.

Despite his vocal support for the bill after its passage, Netanyahu and much of his cabinet were absent from the Monday night Knesset vote.

London-based rights organisation Amnesty International said the law, which allows civil suits against those calling for the boycott of Israel or its settlements, would have “a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Israel.”

“Despite proponents’ claims to the contrary, this law is a blatant attempt to stifle peaceful dissent and campaigning by attacking the right to freedom of expression, which all governments must uphold,” a statement said.