Is BDS headed for defeat?

BDS has suffered some recent setbacks, but as long as the Israel-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, the movement will continue to benefit from a tailwind.

Palestinians walk past a sign calling for a boycott of Israel painted on a wall in Bethlehem (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Palestinians walk past a sign calling for a boycott of Israel painted on a wall in Bethlehem
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
FROM RECENT defeats, it appears that efforts by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to undermine Israel’s legitimacy may have fallen on hard times. But appearances can be deceptive, and we – supporters of Israel as the secure, democratic nation-state of the Jewish people – cannot afford complacency.
IT IS true that BDS recently experienced a string of setbacks in the United States. These include an executive order from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo prohibiting his state from doing business with companies that boycott Israel, rejection by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) of a boycott resolution directed at all Israeli academic institutions, and the United Methodist Church’s repudiation of divestment and move to withdraw from the “US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation,” a pro-BDS coalition.
To understand the real threat posed by the BDS movement, however, we need to look at the forest and not just the trees. There have been and will continue to be both short-term “wins” and “losses.” The BDS movement’s long-term strategic objective is to erode the perception that Israel embodies those values underpinning its special alliance with the United States – democracy, human rights, equality under law and peace. In other words, their underlying aim is to turn Israel into a pariah state, viewed similarly to the apartheid South African regime.
While the BDS movement is very far from achieving its malicious agenda, we cannot ignore some worrisome trends. According to a Pew Research Center poll released in May 2016, overall American public support for Israel remains high. At the same time, liberal Democrats expressed greater sympathy for the Palestinians over Israel by a 40 percent to 33 percent margin. Millennials expressed greater sympathy for Israel, but even among them there has been a steady increase of sympathy for the Palestinians, from 9 percent in 2006, to 20 percent in July 2014, and 27 percent in this latest poll.
The Pew findings can be linked to an analysis jointly conducted in early 2016 by three respected think tanks – American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution – which concluded that shifting American demographics favor the Democratic Party. These trends are a recipe for future challenges for Israel in the political arena. One immediate manifestation is the battle brewing in the Democratic Party platform deliberations. Senator Bernie Sanders’s appointments, including the BDS sympathetic Cornel West, are arguing for a more “balanced” section on Israel and the Palestinians.
Hard-core and determined BDS activists do not accept Israel’s legitimacy within any borders. Yet, it would be fair to say that Israel’s continuing control over the lives of Palestinians in the territories captured during the 1967 Six Day War provides these activists with a great deal of fuel for their efforts. We already are seeing signs that the occupation’s half-century anniversary in 2017 will be utilized for a variety of anti-Israel activities, both in communities and on college campuses.
This would not be a problem if Americans overwhelmingly believed Israel’s government was making a good-faith effort to resolve the Palestinian issue. Unfortunately, even a large segment of American Jewry – 40 percent according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey – do not believe this is the case. In the waning months of the Obama administration, there may be a unified international diplomatic initiative to try to advance the long-stalled peace process, including possible action at the UN Security Council. If Israel is seen as the primary rejectionist party in such a scenario, whether justified or not, it might provide a tailwind to BDS activism.
On the other hand, the regional environment has become more conducive to cooperation between Israel and the Sunni Arab states. They have a shared strategic interest to thwart the hegemonic designs of a radical Shi’ite Iran. If Israel can build on this new reality to advance prospects for peace with the Palestinians, even with only interim confidence- building measures, BDS inevitably will suffer.
Returning to the American Anthropological Association’s welcome rejection of a boycott, we should take note that the organization’s leadership issued a stinging condemnation of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and indicated it would urge US pressure on Israel. The narrowness of the boycott vote – 2,384 in favor, 2,423 against – also suggests that we may see the issue resurface in the not too distant future.
Bottom line: While we can derive some satisfaction from recent achievements in fighting Israel’s delegitimization, we must not forget that this struggle is a marathon, not a sprint. 
Martin J. Raffel is former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a coordinating umbrella body for national and community- based Jewish public affairs organizations across the US.