Is Israel's step away from free speech also a step away from its most important ally?
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud party meeting in Jerusalem / Reuters
The vote last week by the Israeli Knesset to pass the "boycott bill," which subjects anyone calling for a boycott of Israel or the settlements to lawsuits and severe penalties, was intended, according to its sponsor, Likud member Zeev Elkin, to make it easier to fight back against those seeking to delegitimize Israel and to ensure Israel's accepted place in the global community. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on Wednesday that the ban on calls for a boycott is not a violation of democratic principles and does not tarnish Israel's reputation. He called the condemnations of Israel over the law unfair "attacks on a democracy's attempt to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not." Netanyahu and the law's supporters may indeed believe that banning Israeli citizens from calling for boycotts will strengthen Israel's standing in the world by eliminating what they see as a potential fifth column of enemies within, but the unfortunate reality is that this law will have the exact opposite effect of that which Elkin intended. By enacting a law with such anti-democratic overtones, and that explicitly embraces the settlements as equivalent with Israel proper, Israel is putting its global status in peril by endangering its crucial support from the United States.
Many Israelis may feel that they live in a state that is besieged on all sides, by hostile Arab neighbors and by unfriendly European countries whose sympathies lie with the Palestinians. A 2003 poll of European Union countries reported 59 percent of respondents labeling Israel as a "threat to peace in the world" -- more than named Iran, Iraq, or North Korea. But there are exceptions to Israel's international isolation, and the most important of those is its staunchest ally, the United States. Not only does the U.S. provide Israel with billions annually in military aid, it is stated American policy to preserve Israel's military superiority over its Middle Eastern neighbors and to guarantee Israel's security. The U.S. protects Israel from opprobrium in the United Nations, where it routinely vetoes or threatens to veto Security Council resolutions against Israel. There is a longstanding maxim in Israeli politics that the only thing an Israeli prime minister cannot do under any circumstances is endanger the relationship with the U.S.