Icelandic boycotts, troubling precedents

Clever puns, it seems, are preferable to a coherent foreign policy.

Fishermen's boats are seen docked at the Reykjavik harbour in Iceland March 24, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Fishermen's boats are seen docked at the Reykjavik harbour in Iceland March 24, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Reykjavik-gate” has come and gone so fast that one could have blinked and missed it.
A declared boycott by the Icelandic capital city’s municipality of all Israeli-made products has quickly given way to a mealy-mouthed retraction by the city’s mayor that no general boycott was intended, but rather one that exclusively targets settlement- made goods. No one seems happy with this decision; certainly not the mayor, who claims that the vote was made in haste. The vote was also met with quick denunciations from Iceland’s Foreign Ministry, making it clear that it did in no way reflect the country’s relations with Israel. It goes without saying that the Israeli Foreign Ministry had a field day drafting its statement against the declared boycott, denouncing the “volcano of hatred” spewing forth from Reykjavik.
Clever puns, it seems, are preferable to a coherent foreign policy.
It’s easy to dismiss this tempest in a teacup as another example of European hypocrisy and an over-exaggeration of Israeli transgressions.
Iceland, and more specifically Reykjavik, are both figuratively and literally off the radar in most world affairs.
Iceland is a country of less than a half a million people, lying on the periphery of Europe. Trade between Iceland and Israel is not particularity significant, nor is it certain what, if any, Israeli- made products the municipality would have actually been successful in boycotting.
These facts notwithstanding, however, Iceland is still very much a Western country, part of a group which Israel itself labels “the moral majority.”
As such, any boycotts emanating from a Western capital should serve as a warning for the future. Given the current makeup of the current government, however, it is one that is unlikely to be heeded.
No doubt many Israelis will simply dismiss this decision as one fueled by anti-Semitism, ignorance or a mixture of both. This, I believe, is a mistake, in particular regarding the former charge.
Boycotting Israel and only Israel and initiating said boycott during a time of major upheaval in every other part of the Middle East is no doubt unhelpfully hypocritical. Like past initiatives similar to this one, it will also add fuel to the right wing’s “the whole world is against us” pyre.
Despite these missteps, it is doubtful that the city council’s actions were a smokescreen for some sort of anti-Semitic crusade. More likely it reflects the frustration of Western Europe regarding the standstill in the peace process, and a desire to get the ball rolling again, however misguided. What has occurred in Iceland is simply history repeating itself, as we saw in the US in the case of the Presbyterian and other mainline churches who have recently voted to divest from companies they believe are complicit in the occupation. For many years, pro-Israel activists could keep these votes at bay by arguing that the Israeli government was negotiating with the Palestinian Authority in good faith. Without any real progress being made, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and its supporters have been able to capitalize on this frustration.
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken office, there has been more or less a moratorium on the peace process, in favor of Netanyahu’s preference to maintain the status quo. Even the US’s well-intentioned round of peace talks a year-and-ahalf ago were inevitably littered with all sorts of landmines (from both parties, it should be noted) guaranteeing their collapse. A national election half a year ago brought into power the most right-wing coalition in the country’s history, one whose commitment to the two state-solution, and even liberal democracy, are tenuous at best. With no horizon of which to speak, a vacuum now exists in which two forces have inevitably rushed in.
The first takes the form in almost daily attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank: if anyone wants to know what “managing the conflict” looks like, this is it. The second will manifest itself in increasing numbers of boycott initiatives that the Israeli government will have a harder and harder time fighting off, due to a perceived dearth of legitimacy.
Critics will respond that it takes two to tango, that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is weak or insincere about signing a peace deal with this or any Israeli government. They will rightfully point out that he waffled in 2008 when pressed to sign a far-reaching peace deal offered to him by then prime Minister Olmert (while leaving out the fact that the latter was a lame duck). They will look to Gaza and justifiably cite the security concerns in the event of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank. And they will naturally point to his latest speech at the UN General Assembly that was short on peace and long on assailing Israel. Yet even if one were to take all or some of these concerns at face value that does not change the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has done little in the way of moving forward any sort of diplomatic process in the past six years. Even his speech at the UN did nothing to hint at the concern for the status quo and a serious desire to return to negotiations.
The Israeli state is not a cipher; as such, despite the obstacles that it faces in the region it can and must move forward in laying the groundwork for an inevitable peace deal with the PA, regardless of how unlikely the creation of a Palestinian state may be in the immediate future. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s most recent embrace of the Arab Peace Initiative (call it the Bar Ilan Speech, part II) is a good place to start. Those who complain that the PA is too weak to carry out an agreement on its own may support a regional accord that puts the onus on the Arab League to vouch for the Palestinians. To be certain, there are numerous problems with the API that must be amended, such as the vague language it uses to describe the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Nonetheless, it provides an excellent starting point for negotiations.
Unilaterally, Israel is also capable of improving the situation on the ground as suggested by groups like Blue White Future. These include a halt to settlement activity beyond the security barrier and east Jerusalem, an explicit statement declaring these areas slated for a future Palestinian state, and a financial compensation program to entice Israelis living in settlements to move back inside the Green Line.
Ultimately, neither unilateralism nor regional peaces are a substitute for direct bilateral negotiations between the PA and the Israeli government. Nonetheless, they will, at the very least, keep alive the flame of negotiations and show the international community, in a non-cynical way, that Israel is in fact interested in ending the conflict on acceptable terms. A “do-nothing” policy presented by Netanyahu and his cohorts will simply lead to more of the same: more boycotts, more bombings and stabbings, more violence, and more international isolation.
A truly fitting Zionist response demands, contrary to Netanyahu’s worldview, that we take our fate into our own hands, despite the hopelessness of the current state of affairs.