The Government has rejected calls for Israel to be treated the same as other countries in legislation aimed at banning public bodies from imposing their own boycotts.
Tory former cabinet minister Kit Malthouse warned that ministers risk “playing into the antisemitism” that has increased in the UK in recent weeks by including a carve-out in the proposals for Israel, the West Bank and the occupied Golan Heights.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill implements a ban on public bodies imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against other countries.
The Bill allows for the Government to make regulations to exempt certain countries or territories from the restrictions, paving the way for public bodies to boycott or divest against them.
It is intended that Russia and Belarus will be excepted from the ban immediately.
But the Bill does not allow ministers to make regulations to exempt Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories or the Golan Heights, in what the Government describes as a bid to “combat” the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Mr Malthouse’s amendment to remove this prohibition was defeated by 269 votes to 207, majority 62. The MP for North West Hampshire was joined by six other Tory MPs in rebelling to vote in favour of his amendment.
Communities Secretary Michael Gove said the Government’s approach sought to “stand up for what is right” as he also labelled the BDS campaign “antisemitic”.
The Government argues the Bill affirms that UK foreign policy is a matter for the UK Government and not local authorities.
There were also heated exchanges in the Commons over the Government’s decision to continue consideration of the Bill given increased tensions in the Middle East in light of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Tory former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers was met with cries of “shame” from opposition benches as she suggested the Bill offers MPs a chance to say which side they are on.
Mr Malthouse, speaking about his amendment at report stage, said: “In carving out Israel, the West Bank and the occupied Golan Heights in the legislation, the Secretary of State is, I’m afraid, playing into the antisemitism that we’ve seen rise in this country over the last few weeks.
“It was Jonathan Freedland who wrote in the Jewish Chronicle, ‘What is a favourite refrain of the antisemites? That Israel is the one country you’re not ‘allowed’ to criticise. This Bill takes a canard and, in the case of boycotts, turns it into the law of the land’.
“There is no requirement in law for this carve-out to exist. Were amendment seven to be passed, the impact of the Bill would be precisely the same on a daily basis, Israel would merely be treated as all other countries in the world would be treated for the purposes of our legislation.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner earlier said: “We have serious reservations about how this Bill will effectively rewrite UK foreign policy by explicitly equating Israel with the occupied Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights.
“This is an unprecedented step that to my knowledge has never been taken in British statute before and is unique in any British legislation.
“An essential cornerstone of British policy supported across this House, and indeed at the UN, is support for a two-state solution as a viable long-term solution to give Israelis and Palestinians the recognition and security that they deserve.
“Not only does the wording of this Bill call into question the long-standing position of the UK in supporting a two-state solution, it runs counter to the UN resolutions.”
Conservative former cabinet minister David Jones, who supported Mr Malthouse’s amendment, said the Government had sought to “outlaw the activities of the BDS movement in relation to Israel only… that is not a country-agnostic ambition of the sort that was envisaged in the manifesto commitment”.
He warned that making exceptions for Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights in the Bill was a “strange approach” and the “absence of neutrality may indeed cause offence to people of other countries”.
Replying for the Government, Mr Gove addressed the “specific menace” of the BDS movement, saying: “If we look at local government and… at devolved administrations, the only country that has been singled out so far for boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns has been Israel.
“Let’s not hide from that fact. And the reason for that is that the BDS campaign is in itself antisemitic.
“It’s not exercising disapproval of some particular foreign policy or domestic policy decision of the state of Israel. It is saying that Israel should not exist.”
Addressing the question of why the Bill explicitly mentions Israel, he said: “Sometimes you do just have to stand up for what is right. And if there are people who are provoked as a result of that, that is regrettable, but we should not shy away from telling the truth.
“We should not shy away from saying that what has been going on with Gaza’s genocidal campaign against the Jewish people is something that we as a country need to stand against.”
The Bill will undergo further scrutiny at a later date.