A recently-passed anti-boycott law in Israel allows anyone advocating a boycott of the country or “areas under its control”—in other words the settlements—to be sued by private citizens and denied government benefits and contracts. This egregious attack on freedom of speech and conscience is a symptom of several deep-seated problems that are having a profoundly negative effect on Israel’s international standing and on prospects for peace with the Palestinians.
Most damaging, the law again conflates Israel as such with the occupied Palestinian territories. In that way it ignores the legal or political distinction between the areas required for a two-state solution, which the rest of the world finds crucial. While Israel is formally committed to such a solution, its policies have systematically undermined this outcome. Settlement construction is continuing apace, with new tenders offered almost weekly. And now the Israeli government is considering moving 10 percent of its renewable energy quota to the occupied territories, further entrenching its presence.
Some proponents of what is known as the BDS movement—for boycott, divestment and sanctions—would like to target Israel generally. However, almost all effective boycotts in the West have been centered on the occupation and illegitimate settlements. A new move in Holland to boycott Israel’s Egged bus company on the grounds that it supports the settlement policy reinforces this consistent pattern.
The anti-boycott law isn’t about protecting Israel from boycotts that target the country in general, because basically these don’t exist in reality. It’s about protecting the settlers from boycotts of settlement goods, a movement that is very real and growing, especially in Europe. But the anti-boycott law is only the tip of the iceberg in a profoundly anti-democratic shift in Israeli political attitudes. This is partly a consequence of a siege mentality, but it also has a great deal to do with demographic shifts among the Jewish population.
The large Russian immigrant community is better organized than ever, and the extreme religious community is growing at a much faster pace than the rest of Israeli society. Both constituencies are pushing Israel toward a new form of authoritarianism, within Jewish society.
Indeed, more antidemocratic laws are pending, including measures to investigate the activities and funding of liberal non-governmental organizations and human rights groups. Right-wing forces in Israel are seeking Knesset veto power over appointments to Israel’s Supreme Court to prevent it from remaining the primary barrier to antidemocratic legislation. Israelis convicted of espionage may now be stripped of their citizenship. State-funded organizations are no longer allowed to recognize the Nakba. Israeli towns are now allowed to screen potential residents for “social compatibility.” Knesset members who visit “enemy countries” without permission can be banned from politics and prosecuted. Palestinians marrying citizens of Israel alone may not become naturalized citizens or residents. And so forth.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he’s uncomfortable with some of this legislation, including the anti-NGO bill. Yet his coalition is based on appeasing forces far to his political right. And one can only admire his adroitness and cynicism over the anti-boycott law.
He was unaccountably absent for the debate and vote on the law, meaning he was careful not to vote for it. Then the next day he showed up at the Knesset and defended the bill strongly. But he was careful to invoke the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court and said that whatever the institution decided would be enforced (most observers believe the anti-boycott law will not survive legal challenge). Finally Netanyahu claimed the law began as a petition by members of the opposition Kadima party, implying the whole thing was really their fault.
Palestinians, both citizens of Israel and those living under occupation, have become used to antidemocratic restrictions since the founding of the state. But Jewish Israeli society has maintained its own credible version of democracy, at least until now. Many Israeli commentators have noted that Israel’s claim as being “the only democracy in the Middle East”—which was always shaky for various reasons, not least the persistence of the occupation—now rings more hollow than ever.
Crucially, almost all of the antidemocratic Israeli legislation centers around one principal goal: maintaining, deepening and protecting the occupation and the settlements project. Even though a majority of Israelis in poll after poll say they are in favor of a two-state solution, the most far-reaching policies of their government and dramatic legislation from their parliament are pushing headlong in the opposite direction.
This means one of two things. Either a minority of pro-settler fanatics has been able to seize control of the political momentum because of the structure of Israel’s government; or the Israeli public simply doesn’t understand the fundamental incompatibility between enlarging the settlements and deepening the occupation on the one hand and seeking a workable peace agreement with Palestinians on the other.
As long as Israelis treat the occupied territories as an integral part of their state, they invite others to do so as well, thereby delegitimizing their own country. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Israeli society is deliberately choosing a future of formalized, permanent apartheid and conflict over peace, which the rest of the world will not accept. Israelis have none but themselves to blame for the consequences.
Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.