Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Jurist’s and Ambassador's Dilemma

Such an event does not occur every day at the halls of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. A year and a half ago, the right-wing majority in the Knesset passed the "Boycott Law" which claims to be a law against boycotting Israel, but in fact defines boycotting of the settlements as a “boycott of Israel.” The net result is to prohibit Israeli citizens from calling for a boycott of products made in settlements, but does not prohibit any other boycott call. It is perfectly OK to call for a consumer boycott, or organize a boycott due to religious dietary laws or working conditions or vegetarianism and care for animals. Israeli law does not even have any ban on outright racist boycotts, specifically targeting members of an ethnic group. Boycotts of all kinds and types are allowed. The sole exception is when Israeli citizens call for a boycott of products originating in the settlements - settlements in Occupied Territory, created in violation of International Law with the declared aim of preventing the Palestinians from establishing a state. Making such a call exposes one to  heavy damage claims by settlers and their supporters.

Several appeals have been filed against this law. By Gush Shalom of which I am the spokesperson, by Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi, by the Civil Rights Association and Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and Coalition of Women for Peace and the the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, and many other organizations and individuals. The Supreme Court judges were not quick to pick up this hot potato. It took them a year and a half to set a preliminary hearing, which was held this week.

The petitioners' attorneys spoke out, one by one, telling the judges that this is a manifestly unconstitutional and anti-democratic law, seriously violating Israeli citizens' freedom of expression and of political organization. Then it was the turn of the Knesset's legal adviser, attorney Eyal Yinon, to face the judges, make a reply and defend the law enacted by his client, the Knesset of Israel. Only, there was one small hitch: Eyal Yinon himself opposes this piece of legislation, and like the petitioners he regards it as unconstitutional and anti-democratic.

"Before the bill was voted in, I spoke at length several times with the Knesset Members who initiated it. So did the other legal advisers, the Attorney General's representative the legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry and the one for the Ministry of Trade and Industry. We all made them aware of how problematic the bill was, we did our best to make it fit into a proper constitutional frameworks. However, our opinions are not binding on the Members of the Knesset, they passed it into law by majority vote. The court here has the authority to overrule them, legal advisors do not [emphasis mine]."

And the bottom line: "In the meantime, I serve as the legal counsel of the Knesset. I am duty bound to represent the Knesset and defend to the best of my ability the binding resolutions  taken by the Knesset majority". The Legal Adviser's dilemma did notso much impress the three judges on the panel. "Actually, you were sent here without ammunition," remarked Justice Salim Joubran. Not that  Joubran himself and his colleagues seem in a hurry to render their decision on this loaded issue? Maybe next week, maybe only in a year or two. There is no obligatory time frame.

In Israel, 2012, more and more decent persons find themselves facing a dilemma. One  is left to wonder what was exactly said  inside closed rooms at the foreign ministries in London and Paris, Madrid and Moscow and Canberra and Stockholm and Copenhagen and Cairo and where not, when Israeli ambassadors were invited one by one to receive one sharp rebuke after another.

The Israeli ambassadors heard through the media, without any prior notice, of the decision to build near the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, in the area known as E-1, a large new settlements which will serve as a barrier to prevent the Palestinians' territorial contiguity between the northern and southern West Bank, and thus block their way to having a viable state.  There were in the media some echos of the annoyance felt by Israeli diplomats. They learned that this significant decision was not taken by the full Israeli cabinet, nor  by the Inner Cabinet nor even by The Nine who are the Inner-Inner Cabinet. In fact, it was taken by Netanyahu in an informal meeting with the Minister of Education and the Minister for  the Environment, who have no authority whatsoever to make such decisions but do happen to be Netanyahu's main supporters inside the Likud Party.

The Foreign Ministry sent a clear and unequivocal message to all ambassadors of Israel all over the world and instructed them to convey that precise message to their host governments: "We will continue to build wherever we want. The decision to expand construction beyond the Green Line will not be changed. Israel has built and will continue to build in Jerusalem, and in all places which are included in our map of strategic interests. Israel will insist upon its vital interests, even in the face of international pressure. The responsibility for the stalemate in the peace process rests with the Palestinians, and with them only". This text, too, the Ambassadors could read on the Israeli news websites before getting it by the formal diplomatic channels.

Did all Israeli ambassadors indeed convey this precise message to their English and French and the Danes and Swedes and other interlocutors all over the world? Or were some of them tempted to translate it into a language a bit more subtle and diplomatic? Or even add the tiniest hint of a personal disapproval?

Won't all this hurt Binyamin Netanyahu's electoral prospects next January? Probably not. At least, not as long as the strong reactions from world capitals are purely verbal. This the PM could well contain. He can even boast to his supporters and voters of how he ignores and defies all the pressures and continues (talking of)  building. It might even raise his standing in the polls. For the time being, he has no serious reason to worry. International pressure won’t cross the boundary of the merely verbal and escalate into measures which may have an impact on the Israeli economy and thereby on the personal economic situation of Netanyahu's voters. At least, not before  these elections…

Meanwhile, there was held in Tel Aviv the Human Rights Parade which has already become an annual tradition at the beginning of each December. Thousands of Israelis who feel no dilemma  about dissenting and outspokenly opposing the policies dictated by Netanyahu and Lieberman and their fellows. Thousands marched through the streets of Tel Aviv and chanted slogans and beat the drums and waved flags of all colors and signs in Hebrew and Arabic and English and Russian and some French and Amharic and Tigrinya, the languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea which share their own very distinctive script. Young and old, feminists, and slum neighborhood activists, and gays and lesbians, and Negev Bedouins in traditional clothing whose homes are destroyed every two weeks and are immediately built yet again, and black refugees living in the slums of south Tel Aviv under the shadow of the huge detention camps being built in the Negev to house them, and Tel Avivian lower middle class couples with their children and babies and dogs and signs retained from the great social protests of last year.

Three Anarchists, who are going out every week to take part in demonstrations at  West Bank villages and breathe tear gas together with Palestinian villagers, performed a remarkable kind of street theater. Their fellow activists bound their hands behind their backs with tight and painful plastic handcuffs, and blindfolded them with rolls of military flannel originally designed for cleaning guns, a realistic and completely accurate simulation of Palestinian detainees. The detainees who are every night taken out of their beds by the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces and handcuffed and blindfolded  and taken in for questioning under moderate physical pressure at the facilities of the General Security Service of Israel. Sometimes five per night and sometimes fifteen. Two weeks ago, precisely on the night after the ceasefire came into force in Gaza, there were fifty-five detainees on one night in a special operation under the supervision of the Commanding General Center in person.

In these detentions the media is not present, and if someone takes photos of the bound and blindfolded detainees it is a military photographer and the photos enter the military files and get a high security classification. The three handcuffed and blindfolded activists were spread for an hour in plain sight, on the tarmac of Ibn Gabirol Street at the very heart  of Tel Aviv. Thousands of demonstrators marching past them looked with shock at this presentation, and the press photographers converged and took dozens of photos of the three lying handcuffed  on the road. Also the police forensic team arrived and took photos, for the classified files at police headquarters…

Nathan Blanc of Haifa had not taken part in this demonstration. Nathan Blanc is already for several weeks in the military prison. Since the day set by the Israel Defense Forces for his call-up came by,  when he arrived at the recruitment base and announced to the recruiting officers his refusal to join an army whose main business is occupation and oppression. He was   immediately sent off to the military prison, and after a week and a half taken from the prison back to the recruitment base and again given the order to join the army and again refused and again sent to prison. From the experience of earlier refusers, he can expect to run that gauntlet many more times, over and over again ordered and refusing and imprisoned, many  short terms of detention which could altogether accumulate to quite a long time behind bars. But this is a typical example of a stubborn and recalcitrant person, who faces no dilemma in saying no.