Anti-BDS move likely among first actions of new UK government

Considering its historic responsibility to the Palestinian people, the United Kingdom should be atoning for the Balfour Declaration.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the despatch box in the House of Commons in London, during the first sitting of Parliament since the general election, December 17. (AFP)
Unexpected start. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the despatch box in the House of Commons in London, during the first sitting of Parliament since the general election, December 17. (AFP)

The United Kingdom’s general election resulted in a resounding victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, providing him an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons and therefore a free hand in pushing his programme through with little resistance.

His first task will be to honour his promise to deliver Brexit. He will then have to honour promises on health, policing and housing.

However, it was rather surprising that one of the first non-Brexit announcements was made not in Westminster but in Jerusalem. This came via Lord Eric Pickles, a known ardent supporter of Israel and denier of Palestinian rights. He is chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) in the House of Lords, an influential but notoriously anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel lobby group that claims to have 80% of Conservative MPs among its members. He is also the United Kingdom’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues.

Speaking December 15 at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s conference in Jerusalem, Pickles claimed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was “antisemitic and should be treated as such.” He said Johnson would attempt to pass a law banning local councils from joining the BDS campaign. He said the law would not allow public bodies to work with those who boycott, divest from or sanction Israel.

The Conservative Party, whose election manifesto was judged to be “thin” on policy, had found room to mention the conflict under a section headed “Promote our values,” which begins with the claim that the United Kingdom “has long been a beacon of freedom and human rights — and will continue to be so.” The United Kingdom would “continue to support international initiatives to achieve reconciliation, stability and justice across the world.” The commitment in the Middle East is only to “maintain our support for a two-state solution.”

While the manifesto lays out a strong commitment to champion human rights once outside the European Union, it is highly unlikely that Israel would be one of the countries the commitment applies to. In fact, it singled Israel out for exception from accountability for human rights abuses.

This came under the “Supporting all victims of crime” section, in which it mentioned a policy that is undoubtedly designed to protect Israel from the BDS movement, though this was not stated explicitly but through the government committing to “ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.” The reason given is that such campaigns “undermine community cohesion.”

Why now? This may be because of the rising effectiveness of the peaceful movement and pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, which includes CFI and Pickles. It may also be to counter through legislation the government possibly losing an appeal in the Supreme Court brought about by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, on whether local authority pension schemes can divest from companies complicit in human rights abuses. The government argued this constitutes interference in setting foreign policy, which it says only the national government can set.

This final appeal resulted from an initial judicial review that determined the government acted unlawfully by imposing restrictions. It is possibly significant that the manifesto commits to ensuring that “judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.”

The Conservatives have a record of changing British law to protect Israel, as they did when they changed the universal jurisdiction law to protect Israeli leaders and military personnel from arrest for possible war crimes.

Another reason for the anti-BDS move by the British government may be an implicit encouragement from across the Atlantic to act following US President Donald Trump’s executive order effectively defining Judaism as a nationality, not just a religion, in a move that could suppress the BDS movement, especially on US campuses.

Writing in the New York Times, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and driver of the executive order, said: “Students, in particular, continue to face anti-Semitic harassment in schools and on college campuses.” With the December 11 “executive order, the president takes crucial action to support and defend Jewish students in the United States.”

This follows the recent decision by the French parliament to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

Taking together, the moves seem designed to silence Palestinians and their supporters by labelling any action in support of their rights as anti-Semitic. The BDS movement’s demands are legal and moral. It calls for an end to the occupation, equal rights for all citizens of Israel and the promotion of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. How is this anti-Semitic?

Considering its historic responsibility to the Palestinian people, the United Kingdom should be atoning for the Balfour Declaration, a 1917 statement issued by the British government that supported the establishment of a “national home” for Jewish people in Palestine. The new British government’s first move on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should have been to implement international law but instead, it chose to legislate to shield Israel from legitimate protest and boycott.

The message to Israel is clear: You can continue to defy international law with the United Kingdom’s support and protection.

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