Analysis from Israel

Israel’s Knesset took two important steps yesterday. First, a committee forwarded a bill to the plenum for final reading that, if passed, would for the first time subject territorial concessions to real ratification requirements. Second, the plenum gave preliminary approval to a bill that would, for the first time, impose sanctions on those who promote anti-Israel boycotts.

The boycott bill, which will now proceed to committee, would make Israelis who “instigate,” “encourage,” or “assist” boycotts against Israel or Israeli institutions subject to fines of up to NIS 30,000 even if no damage is proved, and more if damage is proved. Foreigners or foreign entities that do the same could be barred from the country and denied the right to use Israeli banks, land, or stocks. The bill would also allow boycott damages to be deducted from Israel’s remittances to the Palestinian Authority should the latter continue promoting anti-Israel boycotts.

The bill, co-sponsored by 27 MKs from seven parties, is modeled on America’s anti-boycott laws. Ironically, those laws were passed in the 1970s in response to the Arab boycott of Israel. But at that time, Israel saw no need to imitate them: what Israeli then would have promoted a boycott of his own country?

It is a sad comment that today such a law is necessary, as Israelis are at the forefront of the anti-Israel boycott movement. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that mainstream Israel is finally fighting back: if enacted, boycott promoters would finally be forced to weigh the acclaim and lucrative awards their behavior wins from like-minded peers abroad against a real price.

The other bill would require that any withdrawal from territory annexed by Israel be approved by either a referendum or a special two-thirds Knesset majority. Currently, such concessions need approval by a mere 61 members of the 120-member Knesset.

That the bill applies only to annexed territory is a flaw; that means it covers the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem but not the West Bank. Moreover, it has a dangerous loophole: the referendum could be waived if elections are held within six months, as the election would be seen as a referendum. That is problematic, because any new government would assuredly come under enormous international pressure to approve the concession, and there would be no referendum to stop it. Nevertheless, the bill would significantly improve the existing situation.

Unnamed “sources close to” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will work to delay the bill’s final reading for “as long as possible.” But the truth is that successive governments all opposed the bill; none of them liked the idea that they could no longer make any agreement they saw fit, with no need to muster widespread popular support. It has nevertheless steadily advanced over the course of two Knessets, with support from both coalition and opposition MKs.

Thus I predict it will ultimately pass this final hurdle too. And Israel’s democratic system will only benefit from ensuring that future withdrawals enjoy strong popular support instead of passing, as previous ones have, by razor-thin majorities that tear the country apart.

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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