The European boycott paradox

The BDS movement's boycotts claim to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace, but few realize that the movement is actually diverging in two very different directions.

Man holds boycott Israel sign (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN)
Man holds boycott Israel sign
The decision of several European companies to divest from Israeli companies or blacklist Israeli financial institutions has been celebrated by prominent leaders of the BDS Movement – an umbrella organization that strives to isolate Israel thorough boycotts, divestment and sanctions. They have been conducting a media blitz arguing that this new development indicates their increasing global impact. However, the European hard-line shouldn't be seen as the evolution of the “classic” BDS campaign, but, paradoxically, as quite the opposite.
The current wave of European pressure on Israel and the call to boycott products and services linked to the settlements - such as the Dutch PGGM pension fund and Vitens Water Company – represents a genuine loss of trust regarding the commitment of the current Israeli government to build peace. In its majority, these boycotts are perceived by the world as well-intentioned, legitimate, non-violent protests against Israeli policies aimed at "saving" Israel from itself. While it may be argued, as I argue, that this approach offers only a simplistic zero-sum mentality, Israel must acknowledge that boycotting products made in the settlements is advocated largely by supporters of the two-state solution.
Indeed, until recently many leaders of the BDS Movement explicitly refrained from supporting a boycott of settlements, for fear of legitimizing the state of Israel with the paradigm of a two-nations state. Yet the evidently ineffective “total” BDS campaign forced many of them to compromise in calling for only a partial boycott. In their eyes a targeted boycott still constitutes as an "act of de-legitimization," as it sill tarnishes Israel's reputation. A prominent leader of the BDS campaign openly stated recently that the BDS’s tactics in boycotting settlement products is "the easiest way to rally support"— a milestone in the path towards a comprehensive boycott.
On the band-wagon of growing criticism over Israeli policies, the BDS leaders operate to generate the false association between Israel and apartheid. They thus label people who worry about anti-Semitism as being agents of Israel's lobby, and multinational corporations who are doing business with Israel as apartheid profiteers. They publicly denounce the two-nation states solution and reject the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. No wonder then, that the president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas publicly denounced the BDS Movement few weeks ago.
The paradox that exists in the current boycotting pressures on Israel is that BDS leaders openly express their goal to undermine the moral foundations that encompass the paradigm of the two-nation theory, while the growing European pressure largely reflects an attempt to secure it.
Boycotting settlement products will not bring about peace, as it puts the onus of the conflict on Israel’s shoulders, and does nothing to address other complexities of the conflict, such as Hamas’s declared goal to destroy Israel, or the Palestinian political deadlock. The international community should instead invest more on generating constructive alternative measures, such as investing in peace projects and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue opportunities. In any case, Israel can fight this kind of boycott through demonstrating a genuine commitment to ending its control over the Palestinian population – something the current settlement policy is sabotaging. The leaders of the BDS Movement also understand that boycotting settlement products will not bring about peace, and this is exactly why they feel comfortable supporting it.
Eran Shayshon is an Associate Director at APCO Worldwide in Tel Aviv. Eran previously led the work of the Reut Institute on the assault on boycott challenge. Reut's work on this issue is frequently cited in the media and its guidelines adopted by several governmental and nongovernmental organizations.