The longer the stalemate on Middle-East peace talks and the more entrenched Israel becomes in the disputed territories, the harder it becomes to loosen the grip of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
I understand the Netanyahu government is planning a direct diplomatic assault on BDS throughout the diaspora, but it faces an uphill task in the court of public opinion in Britain, the US and elsewhere. The latest success being claimed by BDS is the exit of British private security outfit G4S from Israel and the West Bank.
It is tricky to disentangle what has happened. As a security firm, G4S is secretive about its motives. It has in the past banned reporters from its annual general meetings despite objections from major shareholders. The meetings have become battlegrounds between ‘genuine’ long-term investors and BDS activists with the handful of shares that entitle them to attend.
The big issue is G4S’s role in Israel and the West Bank. G4S has long been a support to Israel’s domestic security apparatus, providing and maintaining technical equipment such as access systems, cameras, baggage-screening machines in some prisons and at crossing points along the separation barrier which divides Israel from the Palestinian territories. A particular target of the BDS protesters has been the Ofer prison, located in disputed territory.
In spite of the protests, G4S was until recently notably resistant to such disruptive political protest. As a global security firm – and a good earner of foreign currency for UKplc – it cannot be too politically picky over countries in which it operates.
The break with the past for G4S came with the London Olympics in 2012. Tasked with maintaining security, it fell short in numbers and training of guards, leading to House of Commons hearings and a more intense focus on its UK government contracts. Chief executive Nick Buckles left less than a year later in May 2013.
The tighter scrutiny of its activities led to a police investigation of a youth offenders unit in Kent where staff were caught on video allegedly abusing teenagers. In 2014, it bowed to pressure and pulled out of the contract to provide cleaning services at Guantanamo Bay.
Amid the controversy and a falling share price, the G4S board concluded the company had become too large and difficult to manage. It announced it would cut costs by £1.6bn and reduce the number of countries in which it operates from 100 to around 60.
In May this year, G4S issued a statement saying it had decided to sell G4S Israel on “commercial and strategic grounds” as part of its “portfolio management programme established in 2013”. It rejected any suggestion the decision was anything to do with G4S Israel’s conduct, noting independent reviews had confirmed good practice. Indeed, in 2015 it was cleared by the UK government of any “adverse human rights impacts” in its Israel operations.
Late last month, while much of corporate and diplomatic Britain was on summer hols, the Financial Times reported the company was in “advanced talks” to sell G4S Israel, which employs some 8,000 people. The purchaser, for $100m, would be a relatively unknown investment fund, FIMI Opportunity Services, run by veteran investor Ishay Davidi.
The sell-off is being interpreted by the BDS movement as an enormous triumph for the campaign. It certainly has huge capacity to be seen that way by Israel’s critics, since it is the first known publicly-quoted UK enterprise to bow to perceived pressure from the group.
One must assume G4S’s explanation that the withdrawal is for commercial reasons is truthful, but it is hard not to think this is a convenient excuse for jettisoning an operation that has attracted widespread adverse publicity.
Several of the UK’s biggest FTSE100 companies are engaged in security co-operation in Israel. Smiths Industries scanners are to be seen by travellers through Ben Gurion. Our largest defence firm, BAE Systems, works with Israel on high-tech defence and cyber operations.
G4S has found an excuse to leave. Israel needs to pull out the stops, as quickly as possible, to ensure BDS claims no new successes.