The Problem with BDS

BDSThe specter of BDS is haunting Israel. Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan has been appointed to coordinate the efforts against the boycott of Israel, and the popular daily newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth has launched a wide campaign against it.


The prime minister repeats ad nauseam that Israel is “willing to negotiate without prior conditions” and reiterates his commitment to the two-state principle. Jewish organizations around the world sign up for the battle and organize visits to Israel of distinguished journalists to persuade them that boycotting Israel is an error. Even Sheldon Adelson, the US Republican tycoon, has got together with Democrat tycoon Haim Saban to ward off what is beginning to be seen as a strategic threat to Israel.

The threat is so huge that even the opposition has forgotten its role. Opposition leader Issac Herzog and his partner, Tzipi Livni, have signed up for the “hasbara” (“explanation” – propaganda) efforts against the boycott, and Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid, sporting a kippa, tours the US to “expose the true face” of the BDS movement. But all this is in vain: the EU continues the process of passing legislation that will compel Israel to mark goods produced in the occupied territories.

The differences between the EU’s position and that of the organizations involved in the BDS movement are fundamental. Europe recognizes Israel’s legitimacy and is committed to its security, while the BDS campaign is based on a perception of Israel as an apartheid state, and is modeled on the struggle against the racist regime in South Africa in the 70s and 80s. The EU is using an economic and cultural boycott targeted at the settlements, as a way of pressuring Israel to progress with negotiations with the Palestinians. The BDS movement, on the other hand, calls for boycotting all Israeli institutions, without differentiating between those in the “peace camp” and those on the Right – between those calling for an end to the occupation, in order to maintain a Jewish and democratic state, and those who swear a Palestinian state will never be established. The BDS movement, which gathered pace some ten years ago, adopted three aims which make its political objective blurred (some say – intentionally): an end to the occupation, full equality for Israel’s Arab citizens, and the return of all the Palestinian refugees who left or were forced to leave the new state after 1948. The call to boycott academic institutions and Israeli intellectuals (many of whom are openly against the occupation) raises a legitimate question about the BDS movement’s aims. For this reason, though the BDS movement is more vocal, the EU’s more focused policy is perhaps more effective.

The BDS movement gained momentum because world opinion turned against the occupation and Israel’s Right. While leaders of the western world, from US President Obama to the leaders of Europe, warn Israel again and again that if it does not give up the occupied territories it will become an apartheid state, those supporting the BDS movement hold that apartheid is already upon us, and draw attention to Netanyahu’s assertion that a Palestinian state will not be established as long as he is in power.

But despite these fundamental differences between the BDS movement’s position and that of the EU, both share the same Achilles heel: the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). While the EU boycotts Israeli goods produced in the territories, the PA continues to have full economic relations with Israel. The PA is dependent on Israeli electricity, the Israeli currency (the shekel), and the transfer of customs duties which Israel collects on its behalf. And to top it all, we must remember the security cooperation with Israel, which Abu Mazen considers almost sacred.

Israel’s construction in the territories certainly violates international law, but it is in keeping with the Oslo Accords which left out the status of the settlements. Moreover, the PLO agreed to the division of the territories into three parts, each with a different status: Area C, including the settlements, would remain under Israeli sovereignty at least temporarily, and only areas with a Palestinian population would be under the PA’s (very partial) sovereignty (Area C, and B).

Thus an absurd situation has been created: the EU boycotts Israeli goods from the settlements and at the same time channels funds to the PA, which continues to cooperate fully with Israel on security issues despite the construction in the settlements and despite Netanyahu’s assertion that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch. One hand boycotts, the other indirectly sustains the occupation and continued settlement.

The BDS campaign chooses to ignore Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, preferring to turn the spotlight on Israel alone. This is a policy fit for an ostrich. Even if we agree that Israel is not South Africa because no race laws have yet been legislated, the de facto situation in Israel is bad. The Arab population suffers discrimination and exclusion, so much so that its members are not considered legitimate citizens, as we saw during the last elections when Netanyahu warned that the Arabs were going to the ballot in droves. Alongside democratic Israel there is an occupation regime which has just marked its 48th year. The similarity between Israel and apartheid South Africa cannot be dismissed – even if we cannot label Israel an “apartheid state” de jure. But the PA is a long way from the African National Congress (ANC) and Abu Mazen is the complete opposite to the ANC’s legendary leader, Nelson Mandela. Those boycotting South Africa had an unambiguous political program which united both whites and blacks, expressed in the call for “one man, one vote.” The ANC gained an international consensus and for this reason it was victorious.


The Palestinians’ situation is completely different. The Palestinians are divided into two main camps, Hamas and Fatah. Fatah and Israel cooperate against Hamas, while Hamas is very different from all the ANC stood for. Hamas’ official position does not recognize democracy, does not support equality for all citizens regardless of race, sex or religious, and it is fundamentally a religious and racist movement. In this situation, the BDS movement, acting without a viable political alternative, becomes a blind and sterile struggle, motivated more by hatred for Israel than constructive efforts towards a solution. BDS organizations know what they want to destroy, but have no idea what they want to create.

It seems the BDS movement acts over the head of the Palestinian people, without its active involvement. In order that the boycott be effective, it needs to be backed up by a Palestinian leadership which, unlike the PA, refuses to cooperate with the occupation, and at the same time rejects the religious and separatist program of Hamas. The schism within Palestinian society plays into Israel’s hands. As long as the EU continues to fund the PA, and indirectly the occupation, with limited Palestinian opposition to the occupation, the effect of the BDS movement will remain disconnected with the complex political reality on the ground.


Nonetheless, the fact that the effectiveness of the BDS movement is limited under the present conditions does not make the occupation legitimate, or make Israel any more popular in world opinion. Israel has used up all its credibility. The pictures from the territories each day, particularly the terrible photos from Gaza, have caused the world to start loathing Israel. Every couple of years the world sees another round of civilians being killed including innocent children, another round of homes being destroyed and refugees fleeing, while Israel has no intention of putting an end to the occupation. Both Right and Left in Israel have found someone to blame: Abu Mazen and Hamas. They are certain Israel has nothing to answer for, and if the occupation is almost 50 years old, it is all because of the Palestinians. And every time the Palestinian people rise up against this continued injustice, they are punished severely, and the world’s faith in Israel is further undermined.


The Israeli Right and much of the Left believe that the Palestinians have got used to the occupation, that they will continue to be satisfied with the crumbs Europe throws to them, and that they will accept their status as residents without rights. But this is an illusion. Just as millions of Arab youth rose up in 2011 to make it clear that they would not accept the fate planned for them by the dictatorial regimes, so too the Palestinians will rise up and reject the bitter fate Israel plans for them. Regardless of the European boycott or the BDS movement, a day will come when they will succeed in setting up an alternative leadership to unite the people under a democratic program of social justice. When this happens, Israel’s isolation will become unmistakable and the call to boycott Israel will be a real and effective threat.

This article was translated from Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger



About Yacov Ben Efrat