Israeli Prime Minister – and Foreign Minister – Bibi Netanyahu has boycotted the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel because the minister agreed to meet with human rights groups Btselem and Breaking the Silence.
At worst, Bibi’s move is a calculated ploy, in which he is risking the relationship between Germany and Israel in order to appeal the right-wing electorate. Hating on human rights groups has been a pet cause among the right in recent years, with legislation meant to target their funding and public campaigns to paint them as haters of Israel. As Bibi faces corruption allegations, and as politicians to his right try to paint him as too left-wing (a label which can be the death of an Israeli politician’s career), he is cynically indulging in a move that presents him as the strong man, defending Israel’s pride and protecting it from an anti-Semitic world. There are rumors of elections on the horizon, and Bibi is prioritizing his polling numbers over Israel’s diplomatic relations with a major European country. He tried a similar trick last time around, when he addressed the United States Congress about the Iran deal, in a speech that compromised bi-partisan American support of Israel (which is crucial to its defense and economic infrastructure) and did nothing to prevent the Iran deal, but did massively appeal to the Israeli electorate a few weeks before they went to the voting booths.
At best, Bibi’s move is miscalculated. From the beginning, it was clear that it would not convince the German Foreign Minister to boycott Btselem or Breaking the Silence – but it would cause him to boycott Bibi. Of course, the Foreign Minister did meet with Abu Mazen, head of the Palestinian Authority – which means the top Palestinian leader has the Foreign Minister’s ear, and the top Israeli leader didn’t. Do you think that’s likely to make the Foreign Minister more or less pro-Israel?
Regardless of what you believe Israel’s policy should be in the West Bank, the Western world considers it an illegal occupation. That battle is already lost. The war for the legitimacy of Israel’s existence is underway, and it is vital not to lose a war that might still be won – that must be won – for a battle that is hopeless.
Israel finds itself constantly under the threat of being boycotted. Its main line in fighting that threat is that dialogue is better than boycotts. The claim is that even if Israel isn’t perfect, other countries aren’t perfect either, and it’s unfair to boycott companies or individuals because of the select actions of their governments.
When it comes to companies, this argument might be a bit iffy. Sometimes people boycott companies because they are based out of certain countries, such as the boycott of Nike’s “Air Jordan” shoe because it was made in China*. Of course, often these boycotts are related to the working conditions that created the product in question. It’s different to boycott a product for government policies unrelated to the product.**
However, when it comes to individuals, academia, social non-profits and arts and culture organizations, this argument is completely valid. Why should an artist, who probably voted Meretz, be held responsible for a government they don’t support? Why should Israel’s settlement policies mean that its at-risk youth don’t deserve to play soccer games? How will stopping the exchange of ideas across universities help fight the Occupation?
But now, Israel has suddenly turned into a major boycotter – not of companies, but of individuals. A recent law was passed to allow the Israeli government to refuse entry to non-citizens who are members of an organization that boycotts settlements. The irony is that sometimes letting these people in might be a good way to change their minds: A nice vacation in Israel, a trip with a pro-Israel group, a summer in Jerusalem spent taking classes on Jewish texts and Jewish identity, are all likely to improve one’s impression of Israel, with possible spillover effects to settlements. Simply put: Are you more likely to maintain your negative image of settlements by sitting in a physics lab in Oxford, or by meeting Haddasah Frohman, a peace activist from the settlement of Tekoa?
The answer is obvious, because dialogue is better than boycotts – at least, that’s what Israel keeps saying. By legitimizing the boycott of individuals for their political associations, Israel is essentially conceding the moral ground that is vital to its anti-boycott argument. Citizenship is the highest and most meaningful form of political association there is – certainly stronger than membership in a trade union or political party, to give two examples of political associations that might oppose settlements, effectively banning their members from entering Israel.
There will come a day soon when a settler produces a brilliant play that is rejected from the a European festival at the last minute when it’s discovered that he is a settler. Miri Regev will be outraged for the cameras. But Israel won’t be able to say anything, because two weeks earlier, the member of the American Studies Association slated to give a lecture on Tennessee Williams’ at Tel Aviv University will have withdrawn when he realized he might be denied entry at the airport, since the ASA boycotts Israel. This professor might be Jewish or even pro-settlement, but feel he cannot leave the ASA without risking his career.
There will come a day when German Prime Minister Angela Merkel will boycott Bibi – i.e. Israel’s Foreign Minister***- because of his support for settlements. He will yell “Anti-Semitism”, and say something about Hitler.
And he will not be lying, completely: There is still anti-Semitism in the world, and there are still people who admire Hitler.
That’s why Israel needs a real leader, who calculates wisely and understand that there is too much at stake to play political games with Israel’s diplomatic relationships.
That’s why Israel needs someone other than Bibi.
** For the record, I do not support boycotts of Israel in any way, shape, or form. I certainly think, to be logically and morally consistent, if one boycotted Israel, one would have to boycott not only China and the Ivory Coast, but also the United States, whose institutionalize racism is outrageous, as well as France, whose recent laws severely violate the religious freedom of Muslim women – and the list goes on. And if one boycotted every country, one would be forced to live life as a hermit in the forest, wearing homespun linens and eating foraged mushrooms.
*** In addition to Prime Minister, of course