The recent Association of American Studies boycott of Israel is the latest chapter of a general campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel. The campaign took off in 2005 with the academic boycott in the UK. That boycott was subsequently reversed in a campaign of which I was a part. Subsequently, there was a spate of other boycotts in the UK; however things quieted down in the last couple of years, at least until now.

In examining BDS there are three key questions one needs to answer: Who and what is behind this? What is the extent of the threat? And how should Israel respond?

The hard core behind this campaign hail from the radical Left and are anti-Zionist – that is they oppose the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Indeed, they either oppose the goal of ‘two states for two nations’ outright or view it as no more than a transit point to one state, which, after the implementation of the so-called ‘right of return’, will in effect be Arab in character. The good news is that the overwhelming majority of the public in the West oppose this position. The bad news is that, increasingly, many supporters of BDS view it simply as a means of pressuring Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. Since the consensus in the West, including a large slice of Israel’s friends, is that settlements are wrong or at least counterproductive, BDS campaigners focus publicly on the issue of settlements and the like in order to broaden their support.

At the same time, their radical perspective continues to frame the campaign by placing the blame for the whole conflict solely on Israel. If the objective is a two state solution in which both sides live in peace, security and dignity, then clearly it takes two sides to commit to that objective in order to achieve it. Framing it this way makes boycotts harder to justify. If however, the stated goal is solely ending the occupation and Palestinian suffering, boycotts seem more reasonable. Moreover, once the idea that Israel is ‘strong and wrong’ becomes the received wisdom, then the radicals will be in an improved position to launch their campaign against Jewish statehood per se.

On the one hand, one should not exaggerate the significance of the ASA boycott. The American public’s support for Israel over the Palestinians is overwhelming and it has grown consistently since 9/11. Both parties in Congress are vehemently opposed to BDS and despite their criticism of settlements; more American liberals sympathize with Israel than with the Palestinians. With the exception of the mainline church in America, the real battlefield for BDS is in Western Europe where the public is generally more sympathetic to the Palestinians. Right now none of the boycotts in Europe or the ASA boycott have much practical effect. Indeed, in the wake of the campaign for an academic boycott of Israel in the UK, academic ties between the two countries have actually increased substantially, including increased UK government funding for academic cooperation. However, it would be grossly misleading to take this as a sign that all is fine because the goal of civil society led BDS is to create a hostile political environment. The material consequences are secondary; the focus of the struggle is over political legitimacy and symbolism.

While BDS is not going to bring Israel to its knees, it has the potential to inflict substantial diplomatic, economic and even military damage on Israel over time. If the current round of peace talks fails, the Palestinians will go to the UN and other international bodies in an effort to generate sanctions against Israel with regard to settlements. In addition, every time there is a major conflagration, they will try to take Israeli army officers to the International Criminal Court, a threat which could have negative consequences for Israeli deterrence. Civil society boycott initiatives play into this strategy by generating legitimacy for delegitimisation. This will allow the Palestinians to claim that there is widespread public support for their position among Western publics.

How should Israel and its friends abroad respond to this threat? First, it is critical to divide up the responsibility appropriately. Government institutions should lead the interaction with foreign governmental institutions and international institutions whose membership are primarily states, like the UN. There are many things foreign governments can do to disincentivize civil society BDS and the Israeli government is best placed to make the case and serve as the partner. Moreover, the government will obviously play the lead role in terms of blocking any sanctions initiative by the PA in international institutions. Indeed, it is already doing this.

In terms of political symbolism, the government needs to remember two things. First, especially if the peace process collapses again, it is very important that Israel be viewed as willing in principle to agree to a two state solution involving extensive territorial concessions in exchange for peace, and Palestinian compromises on refugees and security. Concern about BDS should not trump Israel’s legitimate interests on issues such as refuges and security. However, pointing out Palestinian extremism or recalcitrance will not suffice to deflect BDS, as the retort will simply be that pressure is needed on both sides. Without Israeli credibility on this score, BDS has the potential to move from the leftist periphery to the liberal mainstream and beyond.

Second, a major bulwark against BDS is the fact that Israel is a democracy – not simply in terms of voting and majority rule but also in terms of liberal rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. This is the critical point for most of those who support Israel in the West and it is a major weapon in the symbolic struggle over BDS. Therefore attempts to combat BDS by passing laws that are seen to significantly curtail those democratic freedoms are entirely counterproductive. Anti-Zionist NGOs receiving funding from foreign governments and elsewhere need to be combated, but this must occur within the context of democratic norms. Making such NGOs suffer by imposing financial penalties is populism that will boomerang to Israel’s detriment because it will simply erode the resonance of Israel’s most important asset in the war over political symbolism. The supposed remedy will inflict more damage than the disease itself.

In terms of dealing with civil society initiated BDS abroad, the lead must come from Israeli civil society and Israel’s friends in the West. The government should facilitate and co-operate, but it should not lead. For the State of Israel to enter directly into a fight with various pro-boycott organizations abroad simply raises the status of these organizations. It will also be viewed as inappropriate even by members of those organizations who are opposed to a boycott. Israeli academics should engage foreign academics; Israeli trade unionists should engage foreign trade unionists, Israeli religious leaders, should engage foreign religious leaders. In order to be listened to, in order to have the required legitimacy and standing to act, it is critical to have the appropriate partner. Once upon a time the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, of which I was a member played that role for Israeli academia. Today there is a vacuum.

In addition, it is crucial to recognize that it is local activists opposed to BDS within each subsection of civil society that are best placed to take the lead since they know the environment best and they have the appropriate standing. Being able to differentiate between the legitimacy of the State of Israel and the policy of this or that Israeli government is critical to ensuring widespread disdain for BDS. It is the government’s job to defend government policy, it therefore lacks the flexibility and standing required to deal with this issue directly. It plays into the boycotters hands by allowing them to make the issue about government policy, something about which Israelis are always divided – thereby enhancing the legitimacy of the BDS debate.

Nonetheless, the State of Israel should continue to facilitate the civil society-led counter boycott campaign. Since the first wave of BDS, this has been the basis of the strategy employed by Israel in conjunction with Diaspora Jewish organizations and since that strategy was put in place, the tide of BDS which rose significantly 2005-2009 has actually been held back. However, there is now talk of creating a new governmental body to deal with BDS. This would be a mistake. It would shift the strategy from one based on the premise that ‘it takes a network to fight a network’ to one based on the directives of Israeli politicians. As such it would take the initiative out of the hands of those who are most familiar and skilled at dealing with the problem in the nuanced context of their local environment and hand it over to people who are largely unfamiliar with the challenge and whose political priorities lie elsewhere. Witness reports of the Knesset committee discussion on the issue yesterday, where right and left vied to impose their ideological stamp on the issue, thereby dividing us and playing right into the hands of our opponents. Centralizing, bureaucratizing and politicizing the anti-BDS effort would be self-defeating.

If the anti-BDS cause is blurred and subjugated to other concerns, and the means deployed to combat it are inappropriate and heavy handed, things will go from bad to worse. If, however, the cause is clearly the legitimacy of Israel itself, and the means employed to combat BDS are appropriate and sophisticated – then we are well positioned to win this struggle.