In the spring of 2015, something snapped in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attitude to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and other international boycott moves. What had been a secondary irritant on the back burner suddenly took center stage. And, after biting the bullet for six years since his return to power in 2009, he initiated a worldwide countercampaign.
In the space of just a few weeks in May and June, a spate of new boycott declarations and initiatives targeted all aspects of Israeli life from the economy to academic research, culture and sport.
EU foreign ministers pressed ahead with moves to label products made in the West Bank; the CEO of the French-based telecommunications giant Orange declared that he would be ready to cut ties with Partner, the Israeli company that uses its brand name, “tomorrow” if he could (although he later claimed that this was only part of the company’s branding policy, not connected to any boycott, which he opposed and even came to Israel to apologize); KLP Kapitalforvaltning, the asset manager for KLP, Norway’s largest life insurance company, divested from two building materials firms, Heidelberg Cement and the Mexican Cemex, because of their involvement in West Bank projects; leaders of Israeli universities told the Knesset’s Education Committee that the surreptitious undeclared academic boycott of Israeli researchers and institutions was gaining worrying new momentum; the British Students’ Union voted to join BDS; British filmmakers called (unsuccessfully) on cinemas not to screen Israel Film Week; and FIFA, world football’s governing body, considered a Palestinian motion, later withdrawn, to expel Israel from international competition.
“We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the State of Israel, an international campaign to blacken its name,” Netanyahu told his new cabinet in late May.
“We stand falsely accused… Throughout our history we have been falsely accused,” he asserted to the Likud Knesset faction in early June.
Until recently Netanyahu had tended to play down the potency of the boycott threat.
But perhaps because of the mounting critical mass and because as leader of a strident narrow right-wing coalition he feels more vulnerable, Netanyahu is taking the would be boycotters more seriously and in early June launched a global campaign to fight them. “We will gather forces in Israel and around the world to shatter the lies of our enemies, and we will fight for Israel’s right to live in peace and security, to live at all,” he insisted.
Netanyahu’s billionaire American patron Sheldon Adelson and fellow tycoon Haim Saban, who usually supports the opposition Labor party, were mobilized. They set a fundraising target of $50 million mainly for the fight against BDS on American campuses. According to Saban, they will also take on companies that boycott Israel, although he does not spell out precisely how. Netanyahu also instructed Information Minister Gilad Erdan to coordinate a major PR, diplomatic and legal anti-boycott effort with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice.
for Israel, though, is that there are two very different boycott impulses. Hardcore BDS aims to replace Israel with a single Palestinian majority state; other boycotters seek an occupation-ending two-state solution. Each challenge requires a different response. In fighting the first group, effective PR is the chief resource; in fighting the second, PR will not be enough.
To win that far more difficult and significant battle, there will be a need for policy changes too.
In early June, Adelson and Saban convened over 50 Jewish organizations at Adelson’s Venetian hotel in Las Vegas to coordinate an effective counteroffensive.
Twenty heavy donors pledged $1 million each; Adelson and Saban will presumably make up the remaining $30 million between them. The funds will finance campus activists and researchers tasked, inter alia, with producing information on anti-Israel groups and suggesting legal moves to stop them.
Two campus BDS groups in particular will be targeted: Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association.
Israel will also seek to fight the boycotters worldwide through legal moves in the American Congress and the state legislatures.
For example, in early June, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed into law legislation barring entities from conducting business with companies that discriminate against Israel. Other states are expected to follow suit. Losing chunks of the American market could put a damper on European boycott moves.
The Israeli case against hard-core BDS is strong. It can argue convincingly that this uncompromising form of BDS is driven by a fundamental refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist and that its goal is not to partition Israel, but to dismantle it. The BDS cause is further undermined by the fact that it is backed by blatantly anti-Semitic groups, including German Neo-Nazis. Israel’s advocates insist that in this form, BDS is a cynical manipulation of human rights to destroy Israel where armed struggle failed.
Another strong Israeli moral argument against all would-be boycotters is the way it is unfairly singled out. No BDS or human rights groups call for a boycott of China for occupying Tibet, Russia for occupying Crimea or Turkey for occupying northern Cyprus. Nor are there moves to boycott North Korea, Sudan, Iran, Syria, ISIS or al-Qaeda over human-rights violations.
Nevertheless, the intrinsic weakness in the Israeli case is the occupation. The would-be boycotters argue that all diplomatic efforts have failed and the only way to move Israel is through economic pressure. The main argument Israel makes for holding on to the occupation is security related. It insists that if the IDF were to leave, the West Bank would become a launching pad for Hamas-style rocket attacks. But a debatable security hypothetical is no match for clear and present denial of human rights in a 21st century Euro-American intellectual climate suffused with human-rights sensitivities.
Israel’s position is made even more difficult by leftover anti-colonial tropes.
One Israeli tactic to discredit the anti-occupation boycotters is to conflate them with hard-core BDS as anti-Semitic and opposed to Israel’s very existence. But that is unlikely to stop a growing buzz against the occupation, which is by far the more serious boycott problem Israel faces.
The key is in America. The worst case scenario is that the BDS slide on the campuses becomes the bon ton in the wider community, influencing the politicians.
And if an American administration were then to lift its protective umbrella and give Europe the signal to go ahead and squeeze Israel, Israel would be in serious trouble.
That bleak scenario is still a long way off.
But it cannot be discounted as more Americans tend to judge the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a human-rights prism. A Brookings Institution poll last December revealed the degree to which human rights is preeminent in American thinking. For example, in a hypothetical one-state solution, 71 percent of Americans favored its democracy over its Jewishness; 70 percent said they would vote in favor or abstain on a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood; most significantly, an astounding 80 percent listed human rights or international law as one of the three top issues in American foreign policy.
The most articulate analysis of Israel’s predicament came from former prime minister Ehud Barak at the Herzliya Conference in early June. Barak made the case for proactive Israeli policy moves that would both save the Zionist project and blunt BDS and other boycott moves.
view, a diplomatic tsunami coupled with a slide to a one-state reality was the biggest threat to Israel’s survival as a Jewish state. It was frustrating, he said, that the government was only waking up to this now. But its approach was still dangerously wrongheaded. Netanyahu, for example, claimed that it didn’t matter what Israel did, the world would delegitimize it anyway. Wrong, said Barak. That is true only of hardcore BDS not Western governments.
What Israel needed was to drive a wedge between millions of fair-minded citizens and their governments and the BDS extremists.
One of Zionism’s central tenets was the notion of the Jewish people returning to the stage of history and taking their destiny in their own hands. Netanyahu’s constant victim-like behavior was both out of sync with the Zionist idea and ineffective. Israel needed to take proactive steps to change reality, the goal being a strong Israel in a Jewish majority state.
According to Barak, Israel is strong enough to take risks for its long-term gain. It should exploit current conditions to go for a wide regional deal including a two-state solution with the Palestinians. A once-in-a-generation opportunity existed – and like David Ben-Gurion in 1948, a true leader should be able to identify it and have the courage to act to make it happen.
A strong, self-confident Israel should initiate an international conference under US auspices with the Palestinians and all moderate Arab states on the basis of two states for two peoples. The Arab states can give Israel not only recognition, but participation in huge regional projects and a dramatic turnaround in the way the region perceives the Jewish state. To achieve this, two states for two peoples is the essential necessary condition. Barak rejected Netanyahu’s main argument that a two-state solution is incompatible with Israeli security as “nonsense.” Ninety percent of Israel’s generals, the Mossad and the Shabak say the opposite is the case, he declared.
Where Barak sees opportunities, the more conservative Netanyahu sees dangers.
In his Herzliya address, Netanyahu argued that a deal with Iran that freed it from sanctions would leave it with an estimated $150 billion for terror over the next few years.
True, that would enhance potential for cooperation between Israel and the Sunni states – but not necessarily on the basis of two states for two peoples. That would be possible only if the Palestinians recognized Israel as the state of the Jewish people and only if they agreed to stringent security arrangements.
Otherwise, they would build attack tunnels from Kalkilya to Kfar Saba and go into self-production of rockets and missiles on a scale even grander than in Gaza. These were not excuses for not moving the peace process forward, Netanyahu insisted. In fact, they were genuine security problems.
Netanyahu did not see anything Israel could do to change this reality. On the contrary, he complained, Israel was caught up in a Catch-22 situation: The Palestinians refused to engage, Israel was blamed and the international community backed unilateral Palestinian steps to internationalize the conflict – leaving the Palestinians with even less incentive to negotiate. How could this be changed? Not, in Netanyahu’s view, by a new Israeli offer to the Palestinians. Rather, he hoped the moderate Arab states would lean on the Palestinians to take a more moderate position.
As for the fight against BDS and other boycott moves, Netanyahu does not envisage conciliatory moves either, rather a head-on PR and legal discreditation struggle. Israel, he said, would simply tell the truth about BDS unabashedly and unashamedly.
Despite all the current threats and difficulties, Netanyahu said he was optimistic about the region in the long term. In the Arab world, he said modernity would defeat medievalism, creating a more amenable environment.
Again, however, Netanyahu was predicating a deterministic outcome, and excluding Israel from the burden of action.
In other words, in fighting BDS and other boycotters, in reaching accommodation with the Palestinians and the Arab world and in shaping the region, there are no diplomatic initiatives out there for Netanyahu’s Israel. In each case, he hopes others will do the job.
His passivity could prove far more risky than bold moves for peace.This story first appeared in The Jerusalem Report