Ben & Jerry’s exposes flaws in UK Government’s half-baked Boycott Bill

Ben and Jerry's decision reveals flaws in boycott bill

Ben and Jerry’s decision to stop selling ice cream in illegal Israeli settlements highlights the flaws in UK Government’s Boycott Bill.

Ben and Jerry’s have done the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) a big favour by announcing that they will no longer sell their ice cream in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank because it is “inconsistent with our values”.

This helps to highlight just how inconsistent the UK Government is with its own professed values (read what Conservative Baroness Warsi had to say), constantly repeating that West Bank settlements are illegal, yet ruling out the logical step of not trading with them.

Even within the Government there are two views. On their website the Foreign Office and Business department say they “do not encourage or support” trade with settlements because they are illegal.

On the other hand the Conservative manifesto and the Queen’s Speech have both promised a Boycott Bill that will make it illegal for public bodies to adopt a policy of not buying goods from settlements.

Government Boycott Bill Challenged

Middle East minister James Cleverly did his best to reconcile the contradiction at Foreign Office questions on July 20th.  Andy Slaughter (Lab, Hammersmith) asked him to clarify whether the business guidance not to trade with illegal settlements “extends to public bodies”.

The Minister replied that the Government’s business risk guidance is for businesses and “is not aimed at public bodies or HMG”.

But saying it isn’t aimed at public bodies is not the same as saying it doesn’t apply to them. In the actual wording of the business guidance on their website it says that “UK citizens and businesses” should be aware of the implications of getting involved in economic and financial activities in settlements, as well as “possible abuses of the rights of individuals”.

If the advice applies to all UK citizens, then it clearly applies to public bodies and all the more so to the Government itself.

Trade with Settlements

Although trade with settlements is only a tiny fraction of UK trade with Israel – at the most one or two per cent – it is the starting point for any discussion about putting economic pressure on Israel to bring itself into line with international law.

No MPs have yet advocated a boycott of Israeli goods, as advocated by BDS, but a number of MPs have supported an end to trade with settlements. They back this with two arguments:

Firstly, settlements are not in Israel, so it’s not a sanction on the Israeli economy

Secondly, it’s not really a sanction. It is the straightforward application of the law. Settlements are illegal, so trade with them is illegal.This policy was espoused by the Labour Party last year, though only in the context of the threatened annexation of the West Bank and it is now being reviewed in the light of Israel’s change of government.

A Bill banning settlement trade has also been passed by both the Dail and the Senate of the Irish parliament, although its implementation has been blocked by Fine Gael, the junior partner in the ruling coalition.

The Boycott Bill and Settlements

But the UK Government has said – in a press release issued at the time of the Queen’s Speech – that the Boycott Bill will make it illegal not just to boycott Israeli goods but also to stop settlement trade.

The Bill will aim to “prevent public institutions carrying out independent boycotts and sanctions against foreign countries, or those linked to them” – with the last five words meaning that they will include settlement trade.

Some lawyers think that this wording will be unenforceable as settlements in the West Bank are not recognised by the UK or indeed other countries (other than Israel itself) as being part of the state.

The Bill will be based on anti-boycott laws that have been passed in 35 US states. These laws force government contractors to sign a promise not to boycott Israel or make it illegal to invest funds in any organisation that boycotts Israel.

Many lawyers say the anti-boycott laws are unenforceable because they undemine free speech, enshrined in the first amendment to the American constitution, and they have been challenged in the courts by the  American Civil Liberties Union  and the Council on American–Islamic Relations.

According to polls 72% of Americans opposed laws penalizing people who boycott Israel and 70%-80% believed boycotts were a legitimate protest tactic. 

But some pro-Israel campaigners are hoping that the threat of court cases will have a chilling effect on companies.

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