The British House of Commons will next week begin debating a legislative measure with an innocuous title, but unsettling ramifications. The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill is designed, in the words of its preamble, to prevent local councils, universities and similar “from being influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions.” The bill aims to change the law to prevent boycott and disinvestment by public bodies because they have concerns either about a state or its activities, unless, by ministerial exemption, the government of the day agrees with such concerns.
In effect, the bill is designed to prevent such bodies having their own foreign policy. In reality, it is a bill about Israel, inspired by a determination to derail the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
There have long been tussles in the UK between the government of the day and locally elected councils. Usually, these have been between Conservative governments and Labour councils, going back to policy disagreements about Chile, South Africa under apartheid and the UKs nuclear deterrent. Many Conservatives have taken the view that such matters are nothing to do with local councils, which should be concentrating on providing public services. Others have felt that the public expression of differing views is what democracy is all about, however annoying it may be.
The bill is not insensitive to the blindingly obvious. In theory, it would prevent a local council from imposing sanctions or avoiding purchasing contracts with Russia because of its war against Ukraine or China because of its treatment of the Uighur community. The bill provides for a process of exemption where ministers have agreed that such actions are justifiable and are in line with government policy.
Except for Israel. Israel is the only state singled out by the UK government as not being eligible for such an exemption, which means that a future government would have to change the law to bring Israel inside a measure that otherwise encompasses everyone else.
The debate surrounding the measure will thus focus on two main issues. Firstly, the degree of freedom which it is appropriate for public bodies to exercise in matters within their control. And secondly, the degree to which Israel should be treated differently to anyone else. I suspect it is the latter that will have the greater impact — and such a debate could not come at a more awkward time for the state of Israel in the UK.
Support for the existence of the state of Israel is unmovable in the UK, among people and politicians, as is revulsion for terror attacks upon it. No questioning of Israel should be unfairly turned as undermining such fundamentals. But there has been a perceptible and growing unease about events in Israel and the Occupied Territories and the actions of its government. This has gradually found widening expression, within the Jewish community here and beyond, as the political taboo surrounding any criticism of Israel has been broken not by meeting extremism with extremism, but by measured concern from credible and powerful voices.
The historian Simon Schama wrote in March that the UK community should join with Jews “all over the world” in speaking out against Israel’s drift toward becoming a “nationalist theocracy,” not as a “betrayal of Israel” but a “passionate declaration of support for the enormous number of people who feel as anguished as we do.”
The acceleration of an aggressive nationalism in Israel, including attacks upon the Christian community in Jerusalem, has been condemned by the archbishop of Canterbury. The increase in extreme settler violence, accompanied by a lack of appropriate policing, visible at Huwara and elsewhere, can no longer be ignored. The growing number of innocent casualties of Israeli army actions against terrorists causes deep concern from the UK government and many others.
Actions by, and the composition of, the Israeli government elected in November last year have perhaps done more than anything else to break the previous silence.
The admission of ministers with extreme views on Palestine, the Palestinian community in Israel and the annexation of occupied territory is rejected by many in the Jewish community here. And public demonstrations in London by them against the efforts of the Netanyahu government to “reform” the legal system are unprecedented. Many groups have already spoken out against the bill to be debated in the UK Parliament next week.
There are many who believe that what looks like impunity for Israel’s breaches of international law over many years has encouraged those who advocate this aggressive nationalism. The opportunities for greater stability and justice presented by a changing Middle East risk being lost by many things, and this is one of them. It is a difficult time, therefore, for a measure that singles out Israel and shuts down arguments when, in fact, we need to talk about Israel more, such as about how it intends to live up to its international responsibilities and, more seriously, what to do if it does not.