by Patrick Goodenough - ICEJ News
JERUSALEM (June 24) -- Israel could face trade sanctions from its most important ally, the United States, should legislation prohibiting missionary activity be passed by the Israeli Knesset.
This is the view of an official attached to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, according to a Messianic group mobilising opposition to a bill calling for a three-year prison sentence or a NIS 50,000 (approximately US$15,000) fine for anyone found guilty of "preaching with the intent of causing another person to change his religion".
Introduced by Knesset member Rafael Pinhasi of the Shas Party, an ultra-Orthodox member of the governing coalition, the bill passed its preliminary reading with the support of the governing coalition, including PM Binyamin Netanyahu.
Opposition to the initiative is being spearheaded inside Israel by the Messianic Action Committee (MAC), a group calling for "deliberate, continuous and intense pressure" on Israeli lawmakers by opinion-makers, politicians and other interested people who are friendly towards Israel.
During lobbying efforts aimed at killing the Pinhasi bill, MAC representatives were told by an advisor to the US Embassy that the Netanyahu government was in a real bind, as the proposed legislation would be in conflict with legislation currently being enacted in the US Congress.
The Wolf-Spector legislation, which has been passed by the House, although not yet by the Senate, provides for the imposition of US trade sanctions on governments actively participating in - or failing to take steps to curtail - religious persecution.
At a time when Netanyahu needs the considerable clout of Congress to help stave off unwanted political pressure from the Clinton administration, some view his vote in favour of the bill as placing himself firmly at odds on religious freedom issues with many of his most powerful allies in Washington.
At the same time, he is struggling to hold together a fragile coalition in the face of growing pressure not to cede more territory to the Palestinians, and requires the support of ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to do so.
A MAC statement says the group has also been in contact with the Danish ambassador - who labelled the Pinhasi bill "draconian" - and with representatives of several other European governments.
Netanyahu has written letters to several individuals - including the Norwegian prime minister and Anti Defamation League head Abraham Foxman - saying his government found the bill "unacceptable" and promising that it would be killed in committee.
However, mixed signals have emanated from the prime minister's office. During a television programme on the subject last weekend, Netanyahu advisor Shai Bazak tried to quell concerns by saying the bill would be reworked before the second and third readings.
Charles Kopp of the MAC (and head of the United Christian Council in Israel) told ICEJ NEWS this week that Bazak's indication that the bill would be modified rather than rejected outright "doesn't comfort us much"."When you're dealing with a bill forbidding preaching of the gospel, I don't see how they could rework it satisfactorily."Kopp said the bill was "dangerous first and foremost for Israelis themselves" as it opened the door for other kinds of religious coercion. Legislation limiting basic rights of expression was, he said, "sure to backfire".