James Cleverly ‘expressed concerns’ over anti-BDS bill

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James Cleverly ‘expressed concerns’ over anti-BDS bill

BBC report that letter sent to Downing St raised concerns Michael Gove's bill failed to distinguish between boycotts against Israel and those against settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

A Jewish settler walks past Israeli settlement construction sites around Givat Zeev and Ramat Givat Zeev in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, near Jerusalem June 30, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Jewish settler walks past Israeli settlement construction sites around Givat Zeev and Ramat Givat Zeev in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, near Jerusalem June 30, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

A senior official in foreign secretary James Cleverly’s office warned that the government’s anti-BDS bill could breach the UK’s commitments under UN Security Council resolution 2334 “because it does not distinguish between boycotts against Israel and those against settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and Golan Heights.

A letter sent to Downing Street, and seen by the BBC, also stressed that while Cleverly accepted BDS as being “divisive”, he recommended removing the specific references to Israel and the occupied territories from the face of Michael Gove’s bill.

It also emerged that  Rishi Sunak decided in December to include Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the controversial bill.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Downing Street was warned that the bill, as currently drafted, could be used by Russia against the UK, as it offered Moscow the opportunity to accuse the UK of “hypocrisy” and “use it against us.”

As the bill passed its second reading in the Commons last week, Gove told MPs he did not know of any advice given to the government claiming the bill could breach Britain’s international commitments.

The planned law, which has been backed by the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies, despite growing opposition to it in the community, is an attempt to stop local councils adopting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns and divesting in Israeli companies through pension funds.

The bill explicitly names Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights as regions that cannot be targeted by boycott campaigns.

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement wants to end international support for Israel.

But as revealed by the Jewish News in advance of last week’s Commons debate, a growing number of MPs across all parties have raised serious concerns about the impact of the bill.

The communal organisation Yachad has been a driving force in spearheading opposition to the bill, with some arguing it actually impacts negatively on the community here, and conflates Israel with the West Bank settlements.

The letter from the foreign office official, sent on May 12th, is also a sign of a deep split at the heart of government over the bill.

During last week’s debate Gove attempted to sell the economic activity of public bodies bill to MPs stating at one satge: The question for every Member of this House is whether they stand with us against antisemitism or not.”

Dame Margaret Hodge

His comments angered some in the community, with Dame Margaret Hodge saying the bill was actually ” about using Jews as a pawn in the government’s political game.”

Labour, who confirmed they would oppose BDS now, and if they were in government, raised serious concerns about the way the bill had been drafted.

Legal advice given to shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy by the KC Richard Hermer raised serious concerns about the bill.

But Gove, along with the Jewish Chronicle newspaper, attempted to suggest Hermer’s legal advice was tainted by his “political” record over criticising Israel.

But Jewish News has spoken with three other legal experts who backed Hermer’s criticism that the bill “will stifle free speech at home” and was “in certain respects inconsistent with our obligations under international law”.

The leading KC Simon Myerson tweeted:”Richard Hermer’s opinion is legally correct in my view. ”

The BBC now report that the foreign office letter stressed that the bill “would provide ammunition to Russia in its attempt to undermine our narrative that its invasion of Ukraine is in violation of the UN charter and a number of Security Council resolutions” and that Russia was likely to accuse the UK of being “hypocritical”.

The BBC say the letter adds: “Russia (and to an extent China, with an eye on Taiwan) would likely seize any opportunity to challenge the legitimacy of our voice on responsible multilateralism.

“In this context, the foreign secretary believes that the legislation, as drafted, will create difficult handling issues… and that Moscow will use it against us.”

The official advice also raises questions about minister  Felicity Buchan’s claim at the end of last Tuesday’s Commons debate that the bill “is compliant with UN Security Council resolution 2334.”

A spokesperson for the Levelling Up department told the BBC: “The Economic Activity Bill is compliant with international law and our obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 2334.

“Public bodies should not be pursuing their own foreign policy agenda and the bill will ensure that the UK speaks with one voice internationally.”

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