The boycott: To what end?

Pro-Palestinian demonstration to boycott IsraelUntil 2008 the boycott against Israel, known also as the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), was a marginal phenomenon. It began on July 9, 2005 when 171 Palestinian NGOs called for a boycott at an economic and cultural level. Over time, the initiative spread beyond the Occupied Territories to the wider world. But the Palestinian Authority (PA), which maintains diplomatic, security and economic ties with Israel, refused to express support (and refuses until now). The world’s governments likewise withheld support. Here and there, a famous singer or actor cancelled a gig in Israel, and demonstrations were held abroad when Israelis performed there, but these did not have an impact on public opinion in Israel, or on its government, which regularly accused the boycotters of anti-Semitism.

The reason for the boycott movement’s marginality before 2008 was the extremist political message of some of the organizations involved, which called for a one-state solution from the Jordan River to the sea. Most boycotting organizations compared Israel to the South African Apartheid regime, against which boycott had been the obvious step. But Israel’s status in the world—the support it receives from the international community, the US above all, the fact that it has diplomatic relations with Egypt, Jordan and the PA, and the fact that its Arab citizens, despite rampant discrimination, enjoy the right to vote—rendered this political platform untenable, making it easier for its detractors to claim that its only aim is the destruction of Israel.

When Barack Obama entered the White House in 2008, however, things began to change. What had been a marginal movement began growing until it took center stage, especially in Europe. In countries friendly to Israel, such as the Netherlands and Britain, and even in the Scandinavian countries under whose patronage the Oslo Accords were signed, the call for boycott was heard in universities and unions. Obama declared that the solution to the conflict was the foundation of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, even marking a date for the end of the process: September 2011. This gave new impetus to the efforts at pressuring Israel. When the time came, the Palestinians turned to the UN for recognition as a state, but the US vetoed the move. The Palestinians have since backtracked on this approach, but because of the deadlock in negotiations, Europe has become increasingly frustrated with Israel’s refusal to halt settlement construction, and the boycott on goods from the settlements has grown.

When John Kerry became US Secretary of State, the rules of the game changed. The US government gave up on its demand for a settlement freeze as a condition for talks, and pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to enter negotiations, threatening to stop the flow of US aid to the PA. Kerry succeeded in this aim, but Obama’s second term coincides with Netanyahu’s third; Netanyahu has established a coalition which grants settlers key ministries, and Israel’s position has become ever more hawkish position. The sides agreed to reach a final settlement by April 2014, but this date is no different from the other dates that passed quietly. Since Israel adamantly refuses to discuss the core issues and avoids delineating clear borders, the negotiations are meaningless. Despite this, Kerry insists on prolonging them, but knows he cannot do this without determining clear parameters, including borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the refugees. For the first time, Israel is being pressured to clarify its stance on the core issues, which the Oslo Accords had circumvented, thus allowing the settlement project to continue.

Europe and the US are the main funders of the PA. The Palestinian government has recently approved the state budget to the tune of 4.2 billion dollars, most of which come from contributing states and the taxes that Israel collects for the PA. This is a ridiculously small sum, whose main purpose is to pay the low wages of Palestinian officials. The tiny budget perpetuates the poverty suffered by most Palestinians while keeping them quiet. Europe sees little point in continuing this flow of funds when no Palestinian state is in the offing and the conflict escalates. Israeli announcements of settlement expansion, along with Netanyahu’s declarations that he will not dismantle a single settlement and that the River Jordan is Israel’s security border, increase the frustration and wrath of European taxpayers, who indirectly bankroll the occupation by enabling the status quo. It must be remembered that Europe agreed to fund the PA on the assumption that a final agreement would be signed in 1999, according to the Oslo schedule. Now they feel cheated. The more Kerry tries to define the parameters, the louder the outcry from central ministers in the Israeli government, like Economics Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon (who is fully backed by the prime minister).

Israel’s obstinacy has played a part in making boycott an effective tool for pressuring Israel – what Thomas Friedman in his New York Times column called the “third intifada.” While Netanyahu admits that the aim of the talks, from his point of view, is to play for time and ward off European pressure, the Europeans have seen through this game and are applying even more pressure. This time the boycotters are not extreme leftwing groups or radical professors, but a central Dutch pension fund and a central Danish bank. Netanyahu has set up a special committee to address what has become a strategic threat, appointing Yuval Steinitz, Strategic Affairs minister, to deal with the issue. But the pressure is not letting up, and none other than John Kerry is warning Israel of a boycott if the negotiations fail. This has raised a storm in the country, where he is accused of supporting a boycott himself.

The gravity of the growing boycott lies in the fact that unlike the BDS movement, which offered no realistic political path, the new boycott has a political agenda based on the two-state solution. Passively supported by the US, this newer European boycott has two goals:

(1) To bring about political change inside Israel, for it is clear that the current coalition cannot accept any agreement which refers to – or even hints at – the 1967 borders, Jerusalem, or the settlements. In other words, the Jewish Home party led by Bennett has to go. That is why Bennett is making so much noise, aiming to torpedo any agreement taking shape. On the other hand, the replacement of Shelly Yachimovich by Yitzhak Herzog as Labor Party chief, and the orthodox Shas party’s strong desire to get back into the government, make this political trick possible: if Bennett leaves, others will enter. The more Kerry presses and Europe boycotts, the more Netanyahu will feel compelled to take leave of his settler friends. Yair Lapid’s tweets on the likely damage a boycott will cause have also given the impression that his alliance with Bennett, which forced Netanyahu to set up the coalition in its current form, is crumbling.

(2) The second goal is to tie the boycott to a political program. But the question is: What program?

Kerry’s emerging parameters commit the same sin as the Oslo Accords: they offer no clear solution to the problem of the settlements, Jerusalem and the refugees. All Netanyahu is being asked to do is make some adjustments in his coalition. Abu Mazen, however, is being asked to perpetuate a situation in which the PA continues to be dependent on Israel: the “separation fence” will continue to strangle West Bank residents; border crossings will continue to be under Israeli control; and settlements will continue to divide the West Bank. Thus the Palestinian state will be helpless.

To achieve the goal, generous cooperation from Abu Mazen is needed. The interview he gave to the New York Times was intended to indicate exactly this. Abu Mazen is willing to accept (1) the presence of NATO forces instead of the IDF and (2) Israel’s gradual withdrawal from the West Bank phased over five years.

An editorial in the newspaper Al-Quds does not hide the intention behind this declaration, which is to show the world Abu Mazen’s flexibility as compared with Netanyahu’s intransigence.

It is not certain that Netanyahu will manage to make the required coalition changes, and it is even less certain that Abu Mazen will manage to force another Oslo agreement on his people. What is certain is that Kerry’s program seeks to compromise with the occupation instead of putting an end to it. Thus the current threats of boycott, wrapped as they are in the pale political program being promoted by Kerry, leave the bitter taste of yet another wasted opportunity.

– Translated by Yonatan Preminger


About Yacov Ben Efrat