Chuck Freilich
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Israel is fighting BDS the wrong way

Americans will only stop viewing Israel as a brutal occupying power if Israel changes its policies
Border Police officers take aim at Palestinian rioters during clashes near the West Bank Qalandiya checkpoint, on the outskirts of Ramallah, on December 15, 2017. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
Border Police officers take aim at Palestinian rioters during clashes near the West Bank Qalandiya checkpoint, on the outskirts of Ramallah, on December 15, 2017. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Israel’s government has greatly ramped up efforts recently to combat international efforts to impose boycotts and sanctions on Israel and delegitimize its very right to exist. To this end, it recently budgeted approximately a quarter of a billion shekels ($72 million), a large budget by Israeli standards. The decision reflects a belated recognition of the dangers and deterioration in Israel’s international standing. In truth, the picture is mixed.

The good news, is that Israel has diplomatic relations with more countries than ever, 158 today compared to 98 in 1967, and strong economic and even military ties with many. It has particularly good relations, inter alia, with Canada, Australia, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy, Greece and Cyprus. Israel has strategic relationships with Germany and India and a blossoming economic relationship with China. Britain, France, India, Russia and others conduct “strategic dialogues” with Israel and more countries than ever participate in joint military exercises. In 2017 Israel was in the top 20 percent of all countries in its overall level of globalization.

Furthermore, Egypt and Jordan are now engaged in unprecedented military cooperation with Israel and there are numerous reports of growing ties with the Saudis and Gulf states. The Arab League has repeatedly reaffirmed its support for the “Arab Peace Initiative,” a flawed proposal, but one which is a huge improvement over the past. There has also been an improvement in relations with African and Latin American states. Above all, and by definition, a state that is such a close American ally cannot truly be isolated.

The bad news is that Israel’s stature in the UN and international organizations remains at rock bottom. In 2012, for example, 22 out of 26 General Assembly resolutions regarding human rights violations were directed against Israel, and 21 out of 25 in 2013. With everything else going on in the world, approximately one third of Security Council’s resolutions has been devoted to Israel, as have those of the UN Human Rights Council, the very same council that never condemned such upstanding stalwarts of human rights as Saudi Arabia, China, Zimbabwe, Syria and others.

The problem however is not just in the UN. The British, French, Spanish, Irish and Swedish parliaments have all passed resolutions calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state and condemning Israel. A crisis with Europe, including sanctions, may only be a matter of time.

Israel’s international image could not be worse. One poll found Israel’s comparative popularity to be almost at the very bottom, just ahead of Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. Only in the US did Israel enjoy a positive image, and even then just 51 percent. An even more devastating poll found that 25 percent of American college students considered Israel to be an apartheid state and 50 percent weren’t sure. These young people are already voters today and will fill positions of influence down the line.

The formal Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has had only limited success to date and even created a backlash, leading to counter-legislation in the US and Canada and steps to curtail it in Britain. It does, however, have a significant presence on campuses around the world, including the US, holding an annual “Israel apartheid week” and an endless array of anti-Israel forums. Some academic associations and churches have also joined the call for boycotts and divestment. Efforts to boycott Israeli products have generally failed, but it is difficult to assess the extent of the “gray boycott,” i.e. individuals and firms who refrain from buying Israeli products or from trading with Israel.

Netanyahu has deservedly taken credit for Israel’s improved ties with a variety of states. He has invested considerable effort and benefited from Israel’s economic and military prowess, which has increasingly overcome political reservations regarding relations with Israel. At the same time, his government’s policy is the primary source of the delegitimization and boycotts phenomenon.

Fifty years of efforts have failed to convince the international community of the merits of the settlement policy, which it considers counterproductive, first and foremost, to Israel’s own interest in maintaining its Jewish and democratic character and in achieving peace. No matter how much Israel invests in the battle against BDS and delegitimization, it will not be able to change the international image that Israel has come to bear the primary responsibility for the diplomatic impasse. Even the most informed among Israel’s supporters have long forgotten the dramatic peace proposals put forward by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000 and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. They do not recall that it is really the never-ending Palestinian rejectionism that prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state at that time. Much of the American left and the Jewish community have also not yet forgotten Netanyahu’s speech in Congress in opposition to the Iran deal.

In reality, the Arab states have been waging a battle of delegitimization and boycott of Israel since its establishment and in that respect, nothing is new. The difference is that Israel’s image problems today are concentrated primarily among those states that serve as its reference group, the European and Western countries and, increasingly, the US.

Tectonic demographic changes, with negative ramifications for Israel, are already well underway in the US. The two fastest growing population groups, Hispanics and those with no religious identity, are also those least affiliated with Israel. There has been a dramatic decline in support for Israel among Democrats. Intermarriage rates of 70 percent are leading to a drastic decline in the non-Orthodox Jewish population, the traditional pillar of US support for Israel. Young people as a whole, including Jewish Americans, are increasingly alienated from Israel.

US-Israeli relations are currently in a particularly good period, but those who place their faith in Trump may well be disappointed. He has no God other than his own aggrandizement and his attitude towards Israel may change rapidly should he conclude that it constitutes an obstacle to his policies. In any event, following Trump, we are likely to return to the tenser relations characteristic of the Obama era, as further generations of Americans, who have grown up on a narrative of Israel as a brutal occupying power, achieve national office.

Israel has already essentially lost European and international public opinion. A loss of American support, even a modulation thereof, would have dire consequences. It is high time that Israel’s leaders modified their policies accordingly.

It is good that the Israeli government has finally recognized the importance of the battle against the BDS and delegitimization movement, after years of self-denial. Its efforts, however, miss the point, that no PR efforts can change the bitter truth. The real problem is with the policy.

The author, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is the author of Israeli National Security: a New Strategy for an Era of Change, Oxford Press, forthcoming March 2018.

About the Author
Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is the author of Israeli National Security: a New Strategy for an Era of Change, Oxford Press.
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