The Knesset’s boycott boomerang

By passing the Anti-boycott Law, its proponents armed the BDS movement with weapons to attack Israel’s democratic credentials.

Peace Now demonstration against Boycott Bill 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Peace Now demonstration against Boycott Bill 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
As someone actively involved in combating the assault on Israel’s legitimacy, I believe that the new anti-boycott law passed by the Knesset hands a big victory to the enemies of Israel. It divides Israelis and the country’s advocates and friends, while damaging its image as a democracy. As such, it is assisting the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement to reach two of its strategic objectives: weakening the anti-boycott campaign, and strengthening the chief rallying cry of delegitimizers– the libel that Israel is not a democracy, but an apartheid state.
One can certainly understand the ardent wish to impose a price on those contemptible academics who support a boycott of their own institutions while continuing to draw a salary from them. But while there is a place for “price-tagging” in combating BDS, this new law is certainly not that place.
The BDS movement seeks to pressure governments and large companies, particularly in Europe (Israel’s largest trading partner), to boycott the country. BDS is driven by virulent opposition to the existence of the State of Israel as the expression of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination within any borders, including those that existed prior to 1967. It would not make any difference to them if Israel were the most democratic country in the world, because, as one of them put it, “an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism, even critically.”
However, very few people in the West agree with that position.
Many on the liberal Left are unthinkingly critical of Israel, insufficiently cognizant of the strength of the other side’s deep-seated extremism, and tone-deaf to the genuinely difficult moral and strategic dilemmas Israel faces in combating threats and seeking peace.
But the liberal Left generally accepts Israel’s right to exist, even as it supports the creation of a Palestinian state within borders based on the 1967 lines. Most admire Israel’s rumbustious style of political debate, which is taken as a sign of its vigorous democracy.
Recognizing the need to attract wider support from such liberals, the BDS movement has focused on undermining Israel’s image as a democracy, while shifting the focus of its boycott efforts to settlement products. However, this shift is plainly a tactical maneuver designed to split Israel’s supporters and serve as a launching pad for a total boycott later on.
IN ORDER to thwart this strategy, the anti-boycott movement has adopted a “big tent” strategy, bringing in left-wing groups like Peace Now, which played a significant role in combating the academic boycott in the UK.
Recently the New Israel Fund adopted guidelines in which it decided to stop funding groups that engage in BDS; holding the NIF to this policy is important. With these groups inside the tent, much greater traction is gained in making the case that BDS is not about peace and helping the Palestinians, but about hurting Israeli democracy while supporting or apologizing for those anti-Semitic enemies of peace and democracy: Hamas and Hezbollah.
In contrast, the new law has created a strong impression that Israeli democracy is being curtailed in a partisan attack on all those who actively oppose settlements – many more Israelis than the minuscule number active in the BDS movement. Supporters of the law can justify it in democratic terms until they are blue in the face, but as far as the target audience is concerned, it will not make a bit of difference.
By passing this law, the Knesset has taken Israel’s strongest cards and started to burn them.
This self-destructive action augurs badly for the country’s wider struggle. In 1948, Israel won the War of Independence, in no small measure, because of its smart, practically-orientated strategy and its unity of purpose. The Arab side was potentially stronger, but despite the bombastic rhetoric of Arab unity, it lost as each group focused primarily on advancing its own narrow interests.
It would be deeply tragic and potentially disastrous if Israel were to follow the same path.

The writer is head of the Argov Center for Israel and the Jewish People and a senior researcher at the BESA center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.