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Dismantle settlements to defang BDS

Has the time come for a large scale 'disengagement' from the West Bank?

The international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israelis a by-product of the second Palestinian intifada and the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process. It is essentially war by other means – a non-violent, but nevertheless extremist strategy — allied with the practice of suicide bombings and rocket attacks, and intended to coerce Israel into surrendering to Palestinian demands. This campaign is not about ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or Gaza Strip, or about challenging specific Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Rather the sole aim is to paint Israel as a racist and colonialist state with no right to exist, and to transform Israel into an international pariah, similar to South Africa under the former apartheid regime. The method used is one of racial or ethnic stereotyping based on labeling all Israeli Jews as an oppressor people.

The proposal for a BDS emanated from the UN Commission on Human Rights Conference against racism held in Durban in September 2001. The conference, which was characterized by blatant anti-Semitism as well as anti-Zionism, urged the cessation of all relations with Israel. The first major manifestations of BDS occurred in April and May 2002, when groups of academics in Europe and Australia urged a boycott of all Israeli academics and academic institutions. The timing of these initiatives was instructive in that they commenced immediately following the apex of the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign in March 2002 that killed 63 Israelis and injured many hundreds.

The BDS campaign was formalized in July 2004 when 60 Palestinian academic and other non-government organizations publicly called for an academic and cultural boycott ofIsrael. The BDS campaign has three key aims:

1)    To end the Israeli occupation of lands occupied in the 1967 War including East Jerusalem, and dismantle the security barrier;

2)    To achieve full equality for the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel;

3)    To support the rights of Palestinian refugees, including their demand for a Right of Return to Israel as implied by UN Resolution 194.

BDS is not intended to promote a two-state solution that respects the national and human rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, or conflict resolution at all. Rather, its leading Palestinian proponents seek the demonization of all Israeli Jews and the deligitimization of Israel. The leading Palestinian BDS advocate Omar Barghouti, in his 2011 book “BDS: the Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights,” is completely honest about his real intentions. He explicitly vilifies Palestinian moderates and Israeli leftists who support two states, and even opposes a bi-national state based on parity between the two national groups. Rather, he bizarrely returns to the long-dated PLO proposal for a secular democratic state that only recognizes Jews as a religious, not national community.

On the surface, BDS appears to have achieved some major successes in isolating Israel in terms of attracting support from legal experts, literary figures, music artists, churches, trade unions, and other non-government organizations to boycott Israeli theater, music, food, sport and academia.

In the academic arena specifically, there is some evidence of academics canceling proposed joint projects with Israeli colleagues, refusing requests for research cooperation, and refusing to attend conferences in Israel. There has also been some specific black-banning of individual Israeli academics and scholars as in the notorious Mona Baker and Andrew Wilkie cases.

However, no major academic institution has endorsed the boycott, no American university has voted to divest Israeli shares, and the number of academics internationally who have signed anti-boycott petitions far outnumbers the signatories of pro-boycott measures. A number of non-government groups and churches – most recently the United Methodist Church of the USA — have explicitly voted against a boycott. Most importantly, no Western government has endorsed a boycott, which is crucial both for Israel’s international political standing, and its ability to maintain normal trade relations.

Australian support for BDS has emanated primarily from a small number of academics, journalists and clerics, some trade unions, the NSW branch of the Australian Greens, and far left groups such as Socialist Alternative. The most visible manifestation of BDS in Australia has been the aggressive protests outside the stores of the Israeli-owned chocolate shop, Max Brenner.

In short, the BDS campaign has arguably had some limited success in isolating Israel and Israelis from international discourse, but little if any effect on key political and trade relations. Its major drawback both here and internationally is that it offers no positive strategy for promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation. Rather, it is a negative and one-sided campaign aimed at demonizing all Israeli Jews irrespective of their political views on the Palestinian question.

The obvious answer to BDS is a two-state solution. The Israeli government says that it wants to negotiate a two-state solution, and is waiting for a suitable Palestinian partner willing to accommodate Israeli security requirements. In practice the government has failed to promote progress toward a two-state solution, and has only strengthened the Greater Israel project. Apart from the short-lived freeze on the expansion of existing settlements, it has done absolutely nothing to reverse the growing presence of Jewish settlers far away from the Green Line borders.

Now, the settlements are a problem precisely because they were built to prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state alongside Israel. This remains the case irrespective of what the Palestinians say or do. We all know that there are massive barriers to peace on the Palestinian side: the absolutism of their political culture; the continued demands for a literal rather than symbolic return of 1948 refugees to Green Line Israel, rather than to the Palestinian Territories; and the growing influence and potential domination of Palestinian politics by Hamas, a racist religious fundamentalist group that opposes any co-existence with the State of Israel, and uses violence as a first rather than last resort. But just as the Palestinians have choices to take actions that either resolve or prolong the conflict, so do the Israelis.

I would recommend the following: The Israeli Government should issue a statement that it plans to dismantle all Jewish settlements east of the security barrier over the next five years. That means about 70,000 settlers will need to be evacuated. The precise details for the implementation of the plan are to be negotiated with the Palestinian Authority and the international community, and will allow time for all those settlers evacuated to be assigned suitable housing within the Green Line. They will also be paid adequate compensation. In addition, the government should state that Israeli troops will remain in place in the West Bank until such time as the PA – preferably with the assistance of an international peace-keeping force, as Mahmoud Abbas himself has suggested — can demonstrate its ability to maintain a peaceful border with Israel. The vast majority of settlers will remain in the larger settlement blocs within Israeli territory – comprising about 8.6 percent of the West Bank including 49 settlements and 190,000 settlers – with the long-term aim of exchanging this territory for land inside Green Line Israel.

A bulldozer demolishes a house in the settlement of Pe'at Sadeh during the 2005 disengagement from Gush Katif. Has the time come for a large scale 'disengagement' from the West Bank? (photo credit: Flash90)
A bulldozer demolishes a house in the settlement of Pe'at Sadeh during the 2005 disengagement from Gush Katif. Has the time come for a large scale 'disengagement' from the West Bank? (photo credit: Flash90)

The above proposal would demonstrate without doubt that the Israeli people are committed to making the significant concessions required for a two-state solution. It would also place the onus back on the Palestinians to demonstrate that they, too, are willing to compromise. Overall, it would defang the BDS campaign by reminding everyone that both sides have to give significant ground if there is to be conflict resolution.

About the Author
Associate Professor Philip Mendes of Monash University is currently preparing 'Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance' for publication in late 2013