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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sponsored a bill to oppose boycotts of Israeli academics and West Bank products.

Oded Balilty/The Associated Press

The country's attorney-general worried it might not be constitutional. The Prime Minister absented himself from the vote without explanation. Yet even with such ominous behaviour, Israel's parliament has passed a controversial law that is drawing sharp criticism from even the country's supporters, who accuse it of violating Israel's own democratic principles.

The Prohibition on Instituting a Boycott bill, intended to combat the growing support for international boycotts against Israeli academics and West Bank products, was sponsored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing Likud party. But neither Mr. Netanyahu nor 10 other cabinet ministers were even in the chamber Monday evening when the bill was given second and third readings.

However, though criticized by many as a suppression of free speech, the opposition was unable to muster enough votes to stop the legislation. It passed by a vote of 47-38 in the 120-seat Knesset.

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The law takes aim at groups such as Israeli entertainers who have recently refused to perform in West Bank theatres, and peace activists who discourage foreign supermarkets from buying any products made by West Bank settlements. It includes any Israeli who advocates an economic, cultural or academic blackballing of Israel or its West Bank settlements.

Under the provisions of the law, a target of a boycott, such as an Israeli university or West Bank settlement, is entitled to sue for damages from those Israelis who support the exclusionary action, without even having to prove there were any damages. It is left to the court is to decide on any financial compensation.

Under the provisions of the law, the state also can revoke tax privileges and public funding from any institution, group or person that supports a boycott.

Urging a boycott is a legitimate, nonviolent means of trying to persuade a government to stop unwanted practices, opponents of the legislation say. They note that a large-scale public boycott of cottage cheese recently resulted in Israeli dairies rolling back price increases.

Suppressing such freedom of expression flies in the face of Israel's highly praised democratic principles, the opponents say.

Passing the law "just shows how this government cannot, or will not, stand up to the settlers," said Gershom Gorenberg, author of the forthcoming The Unmaking of Israel, "even if it comes at the expense of civil liberties in Israel."

"The boycott law is a black mark on the state of Israel's book of laws," said activist Uri Avnery as he and the Gush Shalom peace movement filed a petition to the country's highest court within hours of the bill becoming law.

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"I hope that the High Court of Justice will rule against it and save what is left of Israeli democracy," Mr. Avnery said.

Another group, Peace Now, quickly flouted the law, announcing a nationwide campaign to urge people to boycott all products produced in the settlements of the West Bank.

Britain's ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, said his country is "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."

Even the pro-Israeli Anti-Defamation League of the United States reacted strongly. ADL director Abraham Foxman noted that while his organization opposes any boycott against Israel, it is "concerned that this law may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis."

On the other hand, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose 15-member Yisrael Beiteinu party is part of the governing coalition, supports the stringent new measure.

"How can we ask the world not to boycott products from Israel when here in Israel, our own people try to boycott items produced over the Green Line?" Mr. Lieberman said Wednesday. "The large industrial zones beyond the Green Line are fully legal and the residents of the [occupied]territories cannot be turned into class B residents," he said.

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Alex Miller, a Yisrael Beiteinu member of the Knesset, said he'll be the first to use the new law, by suing a fellow Knesset member, Ahmed Tibi, for his defiant call in the Knesset Tuesday for Israelis to boycott the West Bank city of Ariel.

Mr. Tibi, an Arab Israeli, called on the public "to take apart Ariel and send away its residents."

"They have no right to live on occupied land," he said.

But long before it hears Mr. Miller's or any other case, the country's High Court of Justice will respond to the Gush Shalom and other petitions filed against the law.

Normally, the court doesn't like to rule against legislation, observers say, but, in this case, it has announced it will reply within 60 days and is appointing an extra-large committee to hear the arguments.

Despite his own reservations about its constitutionality, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein said he will argue the legality of the new law.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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