Ballot initiative proposes to prohibit California investment in Israel

Along with the rising tide of amateur budgetary solutions recently percolating in California’s ballot initiative process, the occasional piece of legislation with truly drastic implications will often manage to work up enough signatures to be proposed, and this election cycle is no exception.

The most recent example arrived at the Secretary of State’s desk on January 21, and like most arguably misguided activist efforts in California, it tries to project the State’s influence into an arena traditionally reserved for the Federal Government – namely, the realm of foreign policy. Such is the peril of direct democracy that the political punchbowl is almost inevitably soiled once every two years, yet this particular bill is unique in that it is the product of institutional activism, rather than the efforts of one or two dedicated fringe elements, and insofar as it arguably resurrects a very problematic tendency in American politics.

What is the bill?

None other than the “California Public Divest from Israel Act of 2010,” also known as Proposition 1460. Proposed by the Israel Divestiture Forum whose initials, IDF, are clearly intended as a swipe at the Israeli Defense Forces, the measure would prohibit the state from investing any money from public retirement funds in companies that do business with the Israeli Government, having an unknown effect fiscally, though one which the legislative analyst’s office estimates to be small or nonexistent.

Either way, the economics of the bill are clearly not the key point about it, as among other things, the bill’s preamble actually contains a petition to the Federal Government to “Suspend annual grants to Israel, which average over $3.5 billion annually in U.S. taxpayer funds that are provided to Israel in the form of military and economic aid (totaling over $120 billion over the past 30 years).”

If this seems alarming, it should, as this bill represents an unprecedented and concerted effort by an activist group to hijack the State’s economic policies for the pursuit of its own explicitly non-economic agenda. Still, if there is no showing that the bill’s central premises are incorrect, one could easily conclude that such a hijacking is not only appropriate, but morally mandated. As such, scrutiny of the bill’s factual underpinnings is highly necessary.

Unfortunately, these underpinnings are almost universally either untrue or unfalsifiable. To take one particularly pressing example, among those rare factual claims found amidst the sea of rhetoric in the bill’s preamble is the claim that Israel violated the Fourth Geneva Convention by deporting Palestinians from the West Bank. This argument ignores several factors – first, the Geneva Convention explicitly allows States to “undertake total or partial evacuation of a given area if the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand,” a provision with so much room for interpretation that it is not at all certain that Israel has committed any wrongdoing.

Moreover, the actual record of UN interpretation of the Geneva Conventions with respect to Israel is much spottier than the bill’s preamble pretends. For instance, while it is true that in 2001, a resolution was adopted censuring Israel, no debate or presentation of evidence occurred at this meeting. This was unlike a previous such meeting in 1999, where the UN unanimously decided against censuring Israel for its actions. The record is thus, at best, spotty, and more easily correlated with the rising influence of Arab and otherwise anti-Israeli member nations in the UN than with any other factor in international law.

Moreover, while the 4th Geneva Convention has met regarding Israel, it is perhaps more revealing to look at what it has not chosen to discuss. For instance, there has been no mention of genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda or even Sudan at the convention, which has been effectively hijacked solely for the purpose of denouncing Israel. So, it also has been with the U.N. more broadly, which began to swing against Israel as far back as 1975, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then the United States UN Ambassador, delivered a fiery broadside against the anti-Israeli forces in the General Assembly. To thus use UN action as a proxy for the actions of Californians is logically dubious at best.

But perhaps most insultingly of all, the bill compares Israel to the South African Apartheid State. Many claim this comparison is patently unwarranted. According to Judith Schwarcz, history professor at Wesleyan University, “To call Israel an ‘apartheid’ state is obscenely false. It is a lie predicated on ignoring the fact that the one and only democracy in the Middle East survives daily through a delicate, heart-wrenching and life-threatening balance between the state’s responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens and a genuinely humanist commitment to protect the rights of Palestinian dissenters.”

This bill appears to be predicated upon similar falsehoods and could be of questionable value to Californians.