TEL AVIV — Britain's largest union is threatening to boycott Israel, reflecting a growing trend among organized labor in Britain that could jeopardize relations between London and the Jewish state.
Unison, the union representing 1.6 million British civil servants, is to take up a measure later this month to sanction Israel to protest its treatment of Palestinians.
The union is making its move after the British Union of Colleges and Universities voted to consider boycotting Israel by cutting ties with Israeli academics and Britain's National Union of Journalists demanded government and U.N. sanctions against Israel.
The proposal to be brought before the civil servants union is expected to call for a boycott of Israeli products, divestment of pension plan assets from Israeli companies and the adoption of a similar boycott by other British labor unions.
"The prejudice, the hypocrisy and the malice are coming from those who are said to be enlightened. We will fight against this," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told fellow Cabinet ministers over the weekend, his office said.
The Histadrut, Israel's umbrella labor union, responded with a protest letter in which labor leader Ofer Eini predicted significant economic damage to Israeli companies and employees. He vowed to block the boycott any way possible.
"We believe peace activity should be carried out through political negotiations rather than intimidation and boycott," he said.
Israeli Trade Minister Eli Yishai is considering a retaliation plan that would mark British retail goods for a consumer boycott. Former Tel Aviv University President Itamar Rabinovich, a leading author and academic, supports a quid pro quo boycott, according to the Ha'aretz newspaper.
"This is being taken very seriously. This is casting a shadow on the relationship on what is otherwise a very strong relationship," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
"We find it strange that a group of British academics want to boycott the only country in the Middle East that has a free and independent academia. We find it strange that a group of British academics believe that boycott is a way to promote dialogue and peace," Mr. Regev said.
British Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell condemned the action. "I profoundly believe that this does nothing to promote the Middle East peace process," he said.
A diplomat in the British Embassy in Tel Aviv acknowledged the chill in ties since the professors union made its decision on May 30.
"It's particularly frustrating in our dealings to have boycotts which don't represent at all British government policy, but make it seem that British attitude is unfair," said Harriet Matthews, a political officer.
"It's challenging for us to make clear that this isn't any way supported by the British government, but at the same time there is a right to free speech, so we can't intervene."
Approved by a 158-99 vote, the British professors resolution cites "the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation" and "encourages members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions."
Two boycott resolutions adopted by British university instructors in 2002 were ultimately repealed, but some Israeli academics have complained of lingering discrimination. Politicians and observers in Israel have denounced the boycott proposals as anti-Semitic because they single out Israel while ignoring other worldwide flash points.
"Not that I think the debate over Israeli policy isn't legitimate, but the targeting of the Israeli academic is unjust," said Nachman Ben Yehuda, dean of the faculty of Social Sciences at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"What does it mean to boycott the Israeli academy? It means to boycott Jewish professors. We need to put this on the table."