Will boycotting Israel be illegal in Britain?

Will boycotting Israel be illegal in Britain?
Comment: The UK's leading politicians have called for a change in the law to ban anything which undermines unequivocal support for Israel, writes Hilary Aked.
4 min read
06 Oct, 2015
The move against BDS shows how much of a threat the movement has become [AFP]

The British government plans to change the law to stop left-leaning local councils from joining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in solidarity with Palestinians.

Typical of the repressive top-down measures being used to combat BDS worldwide, the latest initiative is intended to remove the ability of councils to act in accordance with dissenting views on foreign policy issues.

It is also further evidence that the rapid growth of the BDS movement is making enough of an impact on Israel to worry the country's allies - and provoke an elite backlash.

On Saturday, Britain's ruling right-wing Conservative party announced that it wanted to amend legislation in order to stifle attempts by regional administrations to exclude arms companies and Israeli interests.

It comes after some local authorities in the UK have taken steps to ensure they are not complicit with human rights abuses, in particular Israel's oppression of Palestinians.

Notably, Leicester city council voted to boycott products from Israeli settlements in November last year, while councillors debated the possibility of a similar move in nearby Nottingham - though the policy was not implemented.

     This new government initiative will not place a carpet ban on all such activities

Discussing the government's response, Tory party aides reportedly attacked "militant" left-wing councils, and a spokesperson painted "hard-left campaigns" as a threat to jobs and UK exports.

Yet town halls have long had the ability to use their procurement and pensions pot policies, respectively, to boycott and divest from countries or companies involved in ethically or legally objectionable activities.

Importantly, this new government initiative will not place a carpet ban on all such activities.

Instead it is merely seeking to force rebellious councils to comply with the foreign policy stances of central government - and stop them undermining the massive state subsidies given to weapons manufacturers.

In a statement, a Conservative spokesperson explicitly mentioned preventing "policies to punish Israel", removing any doubt about who the measures aim to protect.

In addition, they spoke of preventing anything which could "hinder joint working with Israel to protect Britain from foreign cyber-attacks and terrorism", and singled out the "defence industry", neatly illustrating how the interests of influential arms companies, the security industry, and pro-Israel lobbyists dovetail together.

Meanwhile, Communities and Local Government Secretary Greg Clark said the measures would challenge what he called "the politics of division" which "undermine good community relations".

Such comments echo similar positions taken by leading Conservatives, such as staunch Zionist Michael Gove - who has even ludicrously called the growing boycott of Israeli goods "a sign of resurgent antisemitism".

The move is also consistent with the Conservatives' long-standing and uncritical support for Israel and willingness to legislate in its favour.

In 2011, David Cameron's government amended universal jurisdiction laws, after arrest warrants were issued for a series of Israeli politicians suspected of war crimes, during visits to Britain.

Now, as then, his party has acted in response to the concerns of pro-Israel lobby groups, which have become increasingly concerned by local council activism.

For example, a recently established body calling itself "Jewish Human Rights Watch", filed a request at the High Court for a judicial review of the Leicester city council decision.

     The move is also consistent with the Conservatives' long-standing and uncritical support for Israel and willingness to legislate in its favour

In contrast to the Tories, the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn showed support for a boycott of Israeli settlement goods prior to his election, and since has become only somewhat more cautious.

And while the "S" in BDS - sanctions - is at present far less widespread than boycott and divestment, his stunning victory panicked Israel's supporters, since it brought closer the prospect of potential sanctions on Israel, were a Labour party led by Corbyn to take the reins of government power in future.

The repressive reaction to Leicester council's move in some ways mirrors the case of Icelandic capital, Reykjavik.

There, the city's local government democratically decided to boycott all Israeli goods until the occupation ended, announcing its decision last month. However, days later, it reversed its position, after intervention from above.

Nonetheless, the fact that such tussles are today playing out in regional government, as well as in students' unions, trade unions and faith groups, shows that those calling for BDS against Israel until Palestinians have freedom, justice and equality, are continuing to win the argument in ever-more influential arenas.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.