The British government on Wednesday formally announced moves designed to discourage anti-Israel boycott activity. Under the proposed law, “discrimination against Israeli suppliers” would be a breach.
“Guidance published today makes clear that procurement boycotts by public authorities are inappropriate, outside where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions have been put in place by the Government,” a statement issued by UK Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock said. “Town hall boycotts undermine good community relations, poisoning and polarising debate, weakening integration and fuelling anti-Semitism. Locally imposed boycotts can roll back integration as well as hinder Britain’s export trade and harm international relationship.”
The guidance applies to “Central Government, Executive Agencies, Non Departmental Public Bodies, the wider public sector, Local Authorities and NHS (National Health Service) bodies,” the statement said. “Any public body found to be in breach of the regulations could be subject to severe penalties.”
It noted that the new guidance “complements existing Government guidance about trading or investing overseas (including with Israel), where we advise UK businesses to consider any potential legal and economic risks of doing so.” At the same time, the statement affirmed Britian’s commitment to EU labeling of settlement goods, noting, “the Government’s existing policy support for clear and transparent labelling of settlement products to ensure that individual consumers are able to make informed choices before they buy.”
Hancock, who is visiting Israel this week, was quoted saying, “We need to challenge and prevent these divisive town hall boycotts. The new guidance on procurement, combined with changes we are making to how pension pots can be invested, will help prevent damaging and counter-productive local foreign policies undermining our national security.”
The leader of the European Jewish Congress praised the British government’s plan as proof that the UK is committed to outlawing “attempts to boycott Israel in word as well as in deed.”
Kantor wrote: “The bill will allow the government to prosecute universities, local government, councils, and student unions that back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”
If passed, the measures will make Britain the second major European country with laws against boycotting Israel.
France passed such laws in 2003, and they have served as the basis for multiple convictions of BDS activists who were sentenced for incitement to discrimination or hate due to their actions on Israel.
On Tuesday, the City Council of Paris passed two declarative motions expressing the city’s rejection of attempts to boycott Israel.
The British government’s plan has come under heavy fire from some left-wingers and pro-Palestinian activists in the UK.
A spokesman for Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Hancock of imposing Conservative Party policies and restricting local democracy and freedom of expression. “The Government’s decision to ban councils and other public bodies from divesting from trade or investments they regard as unethical is an attack on local democracy,” he said.
Israel’s supporters have characterized the move as “welcome,” with MP Eric Pickles, the head of Conservative Friends of Israel, declaring “the attempt by the irresponsible left to demonize Israel is bad for British business, bad for the local taxpayer, and deeply damaging to community relations.”
“It encourages anti-Semitism and strives to make a municipal foreign policy contrary to the interests of the UK.”
Hancock’s proposal is the most recent in governments’ actions to block the boycott of Israeli goods. Previous measures included a provision in the American Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act that requires non-cooperation with entities that participate in the BDS movement against Israel.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.