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Boycott bill: Britain's political gift to Netanyahu

The anti-BDS bill trashes the UK's global reputation, yet Sunak's morally broken government is pushing it through without serious scrutiny
Protests opposite Downing Street against a visit by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu on 24 March 2023 (Reuters)

This week British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will receive a hero’s welcome from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he visits Israel on a mission to build trade links.

But the truth is that the British government has already given Netanyahu everything he could possibly want. 

And more.

Consider the 2030 roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations, which ignored the occupation and defined Israel as a "thriving" democracy, signed by Cleverly before Netanyahu’s visit to London last March. And now we have the abominably named Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, which entered its committee stage in the Commons last week.

It delivers on a central objective of Netanyahu’s foreign policy - protecting Israel against the threat of international isolation by blocking public bodies from supporting sanctions, boycotts and divestment campaigns against Israel.

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Most unusually, the bill singles out Israel, the Occupied West Bank and the Golan Heights for special protection. It thus puts not just Israel, but also the occupied Palestinian territories and the occupied Golan Heights out of reach of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. And not just that.

By conflating Israel with the territories it has occupied by military force, the bill flatly contradicts existing British foreign policy commitments.

Britain’s UN commitments

Britain is a signatory to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2334.

This resolution, a formal commitment entered into by UNSC member states, "calls upon all states to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967".

The protection granted to Israeli settlements in the new legislation makes a nonsense of Britain’s solemn UN commitments. 

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The bill is being driven through the Commons as Rishi Sunak's morally and politically broken government enters its final months in office.

Incredibly, Sunak has pressed ahead in the face of warnings from his own Foreign Office officials that the bill not only contradicts British foreign policy, but actually represents a propaganda gift for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As BBC reporters Ione Wells and Tom Bateman revealed, a Foreign Office letter to Downing Street in May "suggests Moscow would use it to show the UK did not uphold the international rules-based system and was therefore 'being hypocritical in our treatment of "annexed territory"' in relation to Britain's condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine".

Additionally, the BBC reported that Foreign Office lawyers advised that a clause in the bill "would significantly increase the risk of the UK being in breach of our commitments under [UNSC resolution] 2334".

In spite of this powerful (and highly unusual) warning, Sunak ignored this advice and pressed ahead with the bill. And his government is cynically using every trick in the book to push it through parliament. 

Lack of balance

There are deep problems with the government’s management of the committee stage of the bill.

As Areeb Ullah reported for Middle East Eye last week, not a single Palestinian has been invited to give evidence to parliament. Not one. Yet a raft of pro-Israeli voices were heard.

The Times journalist Melanie Phillips was invited. In her powerful columns, she denies the existence of Islamophobia and is critical even of Jewish critics of Israel.

Phillips has written that there are "no good reasons to oppose the bill". In the committee, her views were heard with deep, indeed sycophantic, respect.

George Howarth, a Labour MP and the chair of the committee, thanked Phillips for her “characteristically forthright responses which have been very helpful”.

What a telling  indication of where Keir Starmer’s Labour now stands on Palestine.

But no pro-Palestine columnist was brought in to balance Philips. Why not?

Fundamental bias

Here’s another example of unfairness: Conservative Friends of Israel gave evidence. But no balancing invitation for Conservative Friends of Palestine, chaired by former Cabinet minister Sayeeda Warsi.

Again why not?

UK Lawyers for Israel gave evidence. But no balancing invitation for Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights.

Once again, why not?

The Jewish Leadership Council gave evidence. But not the British Palestinian Committee. And so on.

This fundamental bias became obvious at the very start of the committee stage last Tuesday. Committee members were required to make a declaration of interest (as demanded by Commons rules). 

The revelations were astonishing.

Seven of the 10 Conservative MPs on the 19-member committee said they had visited Israel on trips organised by Conservative Friends of Israel.

Six of them revealed that they were personal friends of James Gurd, executive director of Conservative Friends of Israel and one of the witnesses. 

Three of the seven Labour members of the committee said they had been on trips to Israel organised by Labour Friends of Israel - among them George Howarth, the chair of the committee. 

Just one MP, Labour’s Kim Leadbeater, said she had been on a trip organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, which stands up for Palestinian human rights. 

Political gift to Netanyahu

One final omission stands out. No Foreign Office official has been invited to give evidence about the damage the bill will inflict on Britain’s international standing.

This is understandable, given that no government wishes to advertise its own divisions. But the evidence in the leaked Foreign Office memo that the bill will help Putin launder his blood-stained reputation demands urgent and thorough investigation.

The British government is supposed to be guided by the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

The choice of witnesses, as well as the membership of the committee, proves that the Nolan principles do not apply when it comes to the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. 

In plain English, the bill is a stitch-up.

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The government does not want serious analysis of a bill that, while a significant political gift to the embattled Israeli prime minister and to Putin, threatens to inflict such grave and permanent damage on Britain’s reputation for fair dealing.

One final point. Why now?

Ever since Netanyahu re-emerged as prime minister of Israel last December, events inside Israel, and especially the occupied West Bank, have taken a turn for the worse. 

Netanyahu has elevated Ita Ben Gvir from the status of the Palestinian-hating, far-right Kahanist politician to the position of minister of national security. By giving Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich control of the illegal West Bank settlements, Natanyahu has broken precedent and accelerated the annexation of West Bank land.

Settler violence has escalated in a terrifying way, and the vast expansion of settlement building is part of a systematic programme to make a Palestinian state impossible.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu himself has embarked on a programme of judicial reform that threatens to dismantle democracy within Israel itself.

Yet, as Israel heads in this terrifying direction, the Sunak government promotes legislation that sends out the message that Israel can pursue its illegal settlements programme, with all the horrifying settler violence that goes with it, with total impunity. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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