Why did Israel agree to release convicted murderers and terrorists last year? It was as hard then as it is now to understand how Israel could have agreed to this without some assurance from President Barack Obama. Or was it unprecedented American pressure that forced Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s hand? The most common theory was a quid pro quo with Obama for help on the Iranian nuclear issue. This was a priority for Secretary of State John Kerry, who sees the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the Gordian knot to untie in the region, and it was the only way for him to entice Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back to the bargaining table.
That theory evaporated in November 2013 when the Obama administration blindsided the Israelis by agreeing to the unthinkable – accepting Iranian enrichment in the preliminary negotiation, contradicting every UN resolution that had called for a suspension of enrichment.
So why did the Israeli government release the terrorists? A fourth and final round of the prisoner release beckons, and Abbas seems more intransigent than ever on the right of return, and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Whey then would Israel release another group of convicted murderers? The reason for the release, and why Prime Minister Netanyahu may even sign a framework deal may have little to do with the existential Iranian threat or the actual negotiations with the Palestinians.
Rather, Israel is worried about another existential threat that can cripple the nation and impact its long-term sustainability.
When I recently spoke with both current and past Israeli leaders, they made it clear that, with the exception of Iran, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is the issue that troubles them the most. The potential impact of the BDS movement is of more concern to the Israelis than the threats from Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinians, or the destabilization and dangers in Syria and Jordan. It is not that violence from these areas cannot threaten Israeli civilians, but there is a quiet confidence among the Israeli defense establishment that the military can cope with these threats. They also know that the Israeli citizenry will support the military and government the moment the level of missiles and terrorism reaches intolerable levels.
So why does Israel consider the growing BDS movement as weightier than these military threats? Israel’s main trading partner is the European Union, and Israel has come to realize that within mainstream European society, the BDS movement is rapidly gaining acceptance as the proper response to Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories. Israel fears future economic devastation more than military strikes, with the exception of the Iranian bomb.
President Obama’s not-so-veiled threat of Israeli isolation in the world arena (unless it signs an agreement with the Palestinians) certainly caught the Israelis’ attention. This was on display during the president’s exclusive interview with Bloomberg journalist Jeffery Goldberg.
Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with an ally threatened with a boycott, the president said the US might not be able to help even if it wanted to. The president and his peace negotiators have made clear that they see Israel as intransigent, and the one that must compromise.
So what should Americans who understand the importance of the US-Israeli relationship do? We need to go back in time to change the future.
Senator Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut introduced legislation in the late 1970s to fight the Arab Boycott against Israel. The goal of the Ribicoff Amendment and related legislation was to prevent American companies from “being used to implement the anti-Israel policies of hostile nations.” The legislation had teeth, with both fines and penalties for those who boycotted Israel.
Don’t expect the Obama administration to offer that type of help to the Israelis.
It is up to Congress and pro-Israel Americans to act. Congress is unaware of how much Israel fears the boycott movement, and its capacity to inflict damage over time. The call to action is to reach out to members of Congress and their staffs to explain the dangers of BDS to Israel and to America’s future.
Unfortunately, this administration does not realize that a weakened and delegitimized Israel would be a strategic tragedy for America’s national security interests, as nations around the world would see that America is capable of abandoning its allies.
So why did Netanyahu release the terrorists in the first place, and why might he sign the framework agreement? It may all be about the BDS movement.
The veiled threats by the US president on Israeli delegitimization may have made an impact on Netanyahu. The horror of releasing terrorists and signing a bad deal may be the price to pay to delay the US from tacitly supporting the BDS movement.
President Obama has less than three years remaining to his presidency. In this region, that seems like a lifetime. Israel needs to buy time and hope that the next American president doesn’t see Israel as a strategic liability. Rather, he or she should see Israel for what it is, a vital and irreplaceable asset to American national security and foreign policy interests.
The author is the Director and founder of MEPIN, the Middle East Political and Information Network.