Analysis: Changing Israel's anti-boycott strategy

Maybe it's because we all have become used to the idea that the British elite simply don't like us.

anti-israel 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
anti-israel 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Maybe it's because the groups have Monty Python-esque names like Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (ever heard of Builders for Justice in Darfur, or Architects for Freedom in Syria?). Maybe it's because we all have become used to the idea that the British elite simply don't like us. Whatever the reason, both the government and the Israeli public have responded with strange equanimity to the fact that every other week some British trade union, or some body inside the Anglican Church, seems to come out with calls for divestment from Israel or boycotts. And because the Israeli government has been largely quiet, so has the British government. It took an American supporter of Israel, Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg from the University of Texas, to finally stand up last week and say there were consequences for actions, and business couldn't continue as usual in the face of these boycotts. Weinberg declined an invitation last week to give a guest lecture at London's Imperial College in July, explaining in a letter to the college that the reason for his decision was the agreement by the National Union of Journalists at its national conference in April to boycott Israeli products. "I know that some will say that these boycotts are directed only against Israel, rather than generally against Jews," he wrote. "But given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicated a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than anti-Semitism." And this letter came even before Wednesday's resolution-of-the-month debate among British college teachers regarding a boycott of Israel: this one by the newly-formed University and College Union. Weinberg's act of protest, one that swelled many in Israel with a sense of pride, was followed Monday by a meeting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni held with British Ambassador Tom Phillips to discuss the boycott issue. The meeting, a long time in coming, signified a change in Jerusalem's position, and a growing understanding that there was now a need to protest these actions loudly and aggressively before they gained respectability and spread, not only in England, but elsewhere. Judging by the frequency of these types of proposals in Britain - in April some 130 British doctors called for a boycott of the Israeli Medical Association - it seems that this is something that has become very "in" in the UK. There are those in the policy-making circles here saying that Israel must take a much more active role in making this trend "out." For instance, there were some in Jerusalem who - following the decision by the British journalists union - recommended that Israel respond by denying British journalists access to Israeli government officials. Those who argued that this would only hurt Israel in the British press were met with the following response: "How much worse could things in the British media really get?" Phillips, in his discussion with Livni, repeated the standard British government line - that the government is against all kinds of boycotts, and that London doesn't think these types of actions serve the purpose of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But these arguments are sounding increasingly hollow among various policy makers in Jerusalem, and there is a growing sense that the British government can - and should - take a more public, active position against boycotts. There are those who want to hear Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his likely successor Gordon Brown, come out articulately against these moves. There are those who want to see the British government make sure that the issue is debated in Parliament, and that opposition to these moves is very much on the British public agenda. Charitably, one could argue that one of the reasons the British government has not taken a more forceful stand on this issue is because the Israeli government has not demanded that it do so. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Israeli embassy in London has up until now launched a full-court press about the boycotts. Some have explained that this stemmed from a reluctance to do anything to embarrass a friend like Blair. But with Blair on his way out, and the boycott moves becoming increasingly more "in," voices in Jerusalem arguing that the time has come for Israel to fight back are definitely on the rise.