Queen's Speech: Is the UK moving closer to Israel under Boris with new 'anti-BDS law'?

Queen's Speech: Is the UK moving closer to Israel under Boris with new 'anti-BDS law'?
Analysis: Just days after the Conservative Party won another general election, the government has suggested it could implement new anti-BDS legislation.
7 min read
20 December, 2019
The BDS movement in the UK could soon see restrictions on its activities [Getty]
After the usual display of pomp and pageantry that marks the annual Queen's Speech on Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined his government's plans for the coming year. 

Among the priorities announced by the government was planned legislation aimed at curbing the activities of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a grassroots pro-Palestine campaign that has taken university campuses and trade unions by storm across the UK and beyond.

"We will stop public institutions from imposing their own approach or views about international relations, through preventing boycotts, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries and those who trade with them," a government briefing on the Queen's Speech said on Thursday.

"The UK Government is responsible for foreign relations and determining the best way to interact with its international neighbours... Public institutions should not be pursuing their own foreign policy agenda with public money."

If there was any ambiguity here, other points made it clearer who the legislation was aimed at.

"There are concerns that such boycotts have legitimised antisemitism, such as Jewish films being censored and Jewish university societies being threatened with bans," it claimed.

The Conservative Party landslide General Election last Thursday coincided with allegations of anti-semitism within the opposition Labour Party featuring prominently in debates. 

During the campaign the Conservative manifesto was unveiled and pledged to ban public bodies from supporting boycott campaigns, evidently aimed at BDS, a movement that many members of the Labour Party support.

"We will ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries. These undermine community cohesion," it stated.

Days after the Tories election win, the UK's Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues made the strongest condemnations of the movement by a British official.

Lord Eric Pickles accused the BDS movement of being anti-semitic, and thus opening up the possibility of restricting the activities of pro-Palestine campaigners.

"BDS is anti-semitic and should be treated as such," Pickles claimed before the International Institute for Strategic Dialogue in Jerusalem on Sunday evening, according to The Jerusalem Post.

"Anti-semitism is an attack on the British way of life and British identity. Without our Jewish citizens, we would be a lesser nation."

Anti-BDS legislation

The new anti-BDS legislation mirrors this, and would unquestionably be aimed at the protest movement, which encourages people to boycott Israeli companies over the country's occupation of Palestinian land and other human rights issues.

Although not as sweeping as similar legislation planned in the US, it is a sign of a potential foreign policy shift under Boris Johnson.

It is not the first time that the government - seen as the most pro-Israel of the UK's major parties - has tried to restrict Palestinian activism in the country, said researcher Hilary Aked.

"The government has long tried to repress pro-Palestine activism, especially the BDS movement. Ministers have directly applied pressure to a range of civil society institutions such as universities and even theatres (in the case of the Tricycle) to prevent people taking ethical, practical steps to support the Palestinian liberation struggle for freedom, justice and equality," they said.

Activists are concerned that the new right-wing administration pursuing a strongly pro-Brexit agenda could be pushed into implementing more anti-BDS measures as part of a trade deal with US President Donald Trump.

"The newly elected Tory government is one of the most radical right the UK has ever seen. Boris Johnson is already a loyal member of the Conservative Friends of Israel lobby group but his Brexit plans could see him take foreign policy in an even more pro-Israel direction in the hopes of striking a beneficial trade deal with Trump's US administration."

Fears of suppression

BDS-linked movements say they are waiting to see how the new legislation will take shape, but argue their form of protest is legitimate and designed to bring Israel into line with international law.

"The campaign for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) seeks to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian rights and of international law. Failing to take action to hold Israel account makes one complicit," Ben Jamal, Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign told The New Arab.

Pro-Palestine campaigners said they fear the anti-BDS law, no matter how limited in scope, could be a sign that Johnson is about to set the UK on course for much stronger relations with Israel over the next five years.

"Israel has been engaged in a global campaign to have laws prohibiting BDS introduced so that it can act with impunity. Unsurprisingly a Conservative government that seeks to ally itself with Donald Trump and his far-right agenda is following suit," Jamal added.

"All those who believe in international law, human rights and freedom of expression must vigorously oppose this legislation."

While former UK Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the US decision to move its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem, other countries are set to follow Washington's lead, including South America powerhouse Brazil.

Some analysts believe that Johnson's more sympathetic view of Benjamin Netanyahu's administration could see the UK following the lead of other right-wing governments.

"Boris Johnson will elide seamlessly with the prevailing world order, which is currently determined by Donald Trump's extremely pro-Israel stance," said Sam Hamad, a Scottish-Egyptian writer.

"It's very unlikely that Boris will forge a British path that diverges too much from the one set up by US president. It wouldn't surprise me if he does try to imitate aspects of US pro-Israel politics across the UK, including the anti-BDS measures."

Hamad said that the new government's closer relationship with the Trump and Netanyahu administrations could challenge the long-standing pillar of UK policy towards  Israel-Palestine based on  UN Resolution 242. But any divergence from the two-state solution could have seismic consequences for the UK's reputation in the Middle East.

"This has been the point of orientation for every single British PM in the post-war era," Hamad said.

Party policies

Labour's manifesto put Israel at the centre of its foreign policy pledges, with a promise to "immediately suspend the sale of arms... to Israel for arms used in violation of the human rights of Palestinian civilians".

This was a policy aimed primarily at appealing to leftist-sections of the Labour Party, but not one that would have widespread support in the UK, said Michael Stephens, Research Fellow at RUSI.

Likewise, the new anti-BDS legislation would be popular with many of Boris Johnson's supporters, particularly after the anti-semitism row that has engulfed the Labour Party.

"Removing the power of local institutions to support BDS would be popular with the Conservative Party, particularly as the political winds after the Labour's anti-semitism row have shown that although there is sympathy for the Palestinians it's not really an issue that people want at the forefront of foreign policy, as many in Labour wanted it to be," Stephens told The New Arab.

"I don't think Johnson is pro or anti-Israel, during his time as foreign minister he didn't lean too much towards either side."

Conservative Friends of Israel

Included in Johnson's government is current Home Secretary Priti Patel, who famously stepped down as international development secretary in 2017 after breaching ministerial code when she held a series of unauthorised meeting with Israeli officials, including Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

She has previously called on the UK to provide military aid to Israel. With such strong supporters of Israel in the cabinet, it could signal a change in relations under the Conservative Party.

A subtle sign of this changing relations was when Prince Charles became the first British royal to announce an official visit to Israel.

Indeed, this week, Clarence House announced that Prince Charles visit Israel in January for the World Holocaust Forum.

Chris Doyle, director of CAABU, said that the visit could be used by the UK government to bolster relations between the two countries.

"Given that Prince William has visited, it was likely that other senior royals would follow. The government would certainly wish to deploy them as a useful form of soft power to enhance the relationship," he told The New Arab.

"It is vital that Prince Charles also has the opportunity to pay a proper visit to the occupied Palestinian territories, that goes beyond just a visit to Ramallah."

Doyle said it is the failure of the international community to confront Israeli occupation of the West Bank that has made BDS a "legitimate expression of outrage at illegal activities".

"Instead of the British government and others cracking down on BDS, which is legitimate expression of outrage at illegal activities, such governments should be taking the lead in ending Israel's serious and protracted violations of international law," told The New Arab.

"It is the failure of the international community to do this for so long that has led to the BDS campaign being set up in the first place."

The New Arab approached Lord Eric Pickles and the Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine & The Middle East Lisa Nandy for comment but were unable to get a response at time of publishing.