LONDON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Local authorities and public-sector organizations in Britain will be prevented from boycotting Israeli suppliers under new government rules, and those who do could face severe penalties, the government said on Wednesday.
Apart from where it has imposed legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions, procurement boycotts by public authorities were “inappropriate,” the Cabinet Office said in a statement.
“Boycotts undermine good community relations, poisoning and polarizing debate, weakening integration and fueling anti-Semitism,” it said.
The new rules were a boost for Israel in a battle against a Palestinian-led international boycott campaign. The move coincided with a visit to Israel by Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock, who in a speech on Tuesday voiced opposition to “those calling for boycotts.”
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which campaigns for a boycott of all Israeli goods and questions Israel’s legitimacy, condemned Britain’s new rules.
In a statement, the PLO said British local governments and publicly funded bodies would be forbidden “from exercising their democratic right and freedom of choice not to be complicit” in settlement-building in territory Palestinians seek for a state.
“We strongly urge the British government to reconsider its positions and to rescind this regulation. This is not only a matter of law or politics, but also of moral responsibility.”
The BDS said in a statement that “Prime Minister David Cameron is making a grave mistake similar to Margaret Thatcher’s unwavering support of apartheid South Africa.”
The British government said the World Trade Organisation’s Government Procurement Agreement required signatories to treat suppliers equally, and therefore any discrimination against Israeli suppliers would be in breach of the agreement.
The government has not made boycotts a criminal offense, but those in sectors such as the health service, local authorities and some university student unions that impose them could face penalties, including fines and contract cancellations, the government said.
In 2014, the city council in Leicester in central England agreed to boycott produce from Israeli settlements.
Last November, Israel was stung by European Union guidelines under which products made in the settlements must be labeled as such, rather than carry a “Made in Israel” label. The EU considers the settlements illegal under international law.
Opponents of the labeling initiative fear it will boost the BDS.
(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, editing by Larry King)