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.
Of the many reasons for the strong American support of Israel, the single factor most driving the U.S.-Israel relationship appears to be the broad and deep support for Israel among the American public. Some analysts argue that American policy toward Israel is driven primarily by AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations. Whatever the role of lobbying groups, public opinion is clearly a major, and perhaps the primary, driver of U.S. policy toward Israel. Over the past four administrations, Israel's favorability ratings according to Gallup have never moved below 45 percent and have reached as high as 71 percent, The average gap between those holding favorable and unfavorable views of Israel over this period is 31 points.
What drives Americans' favorable view of Israel, and thus the U.S.'s strongly supportive American stance? Many Americans believe Israel is a liberal democracy that shares a common set of values with the U.S. They view Israel as a free and open society that protects basic liberties, and see it as the only democracy in a region that has for decades been monolithically authoritarian. But when Israel acts in a way that is perceived to be at odds with liberty and democratic values, its popularity drops. This happened in 1982 after the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon, in 2006 when the war with Hezbollah led to numerous civilian casualties, and after the January 2009 Operation Cast Lead incursion into Gaza. Larger numbers of Americans have blamed Israel for the fighting relative to other instances of Israeli military action, and Israel's favorability ratings dropped. While none of these dips were enough to damage Israel's standing permanently, they stand out as warnings that U.S. support for Israel is dependent on a favorable view among the public.
The boycott law has the capability to do real and lasting damage to Israel by eroding its standing with Americans. A law that severely limits political speech in this manner is redolent of authoritarianism, not an open and free democracy, and has been denounced as contrary to Israel's democratic nature by Israeli politicians, the Anti-Defamation League, American rabbis, and prominent Jewish media figures. Ordinary Americans may begin to take notice. With such establishment defense and national security figures as General David Petraeus and prominent analyst Anthony Cordesman questioning the costs and benefits of Israel as a strategic ally, Israel cannot afford to erode its liberal democratic credentials much further. The boycott bill curtails freedom of speech by deeming that which is unpopular to be a national security threat, but also conflates boycotts of the settlements with boycotts of Haifa and Tev Aviv, threatening to cement the stance that all Israeli settlements are permanent and suggesting that a Palestinian state may never emerge through negotiations. Neither of these positions lend credence to the view of Israel as the Middle East's only democracy. That Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were absent from the boycott bill vote and that Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin abstained suggests that they are aware of the law's problematic nature. Israeli leaders defend the boycott law as necessary to preserve Israel's standing in the world, but adopting illiberal laws that risk eroding Israel's standing in the eyes of the American people is a sure way to leave Israel even more isolated than it already feels.