Israeli Perceptions of the Boycott Movement: Myth vs. Reality

After months (and, some would say years) of relative negligence, the economic boycott ‘monster’ targeting Israel has finally reared its head; splashed across the front pages of newspapers, maps display the successes and (significantly larger, at least for the present moment) failures of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign. Government officials bicker about the best plan of action in dealing with the threat, or, if such a threat truly exists at all. What was a marginal concern, and indeed, sure fire way to drive away voters nearly a year ago and has become an incredibly hot topic over the last few months, appearing regularly in discussions conducted in the Knesset and in Israeli media outlets across the political spectrum. Many, especially on the left, cannot help but feel slightly vindicated after having their pleas to pay close attention to the diplomatic front ignored time and time again, while the extreme right feels a different type of vindication, namely, that the world has shown it’s true anti-Semitic colors. As with various topics in Israel, one’s fears or apathy regarding Israel’s future in the world is heavily influenced by one’s political leanings. If, as some fear, we see an official collapse of the peace process, such discussions will only intensify.

Reality, of course, lies somewhere between the sometimes-shrill cries of the left of  South Africa-type isolation that lies right around the bend and the right’s inability to deal responsibly with the creeping outrage directed towards the settlement enterprise. The inability to discuss an even remotely controversial topic without descending into histrionics seems to be par for the course (and something of a national pastime).  Simply put, Israel is not on the verge of becoming a pariah; indeed, the very notion of delegitimization is itself, despite warnings from the right, a fringe phenomenon that few in actual positions of power take seriously, however intimidating the boycott movement may make itself out to be. The country’s economy continues to expand and to blossom, as does its membership in various international organizations, as shown by Israel’s recent acceptance as observer state in the Latin America-based Pacific Alliance in February. This, many on the right, argue, is ironclad proof that for all of the left’s talk of doom and gloom, Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians and territories is irrelevant. Even if, god forbid, the boycott becomes a genuine threat, sober minds will prevail realizing that the world cannot do without the Start-Up Nation’s ingenuity and know-how.

But while the left can be accused from time to time of apocalyptic thinking, the right displays the opposite tendency of denying that a problem even exists. Most disturbing concerning this line of thinking, however, is not the right’s insistence that Israel will prevail against the boycott, but the manner in which and tools it will use in order to achieve these ends, namely a turning away from the West towards non-traditional allies in the East and the Global South, or in a more extreme situation, simply ‘riding out’ an international boycott altogether. The notion that the ‘world is against us’ has hardly been an exclusive purview of the right, having developed into national catchphrase (with some legitimacy) long before the Likud rose to power in 1977.

To be fair, there is much justification in declaring the possible threat of a boycott a double standard. While it has become something of a truism to declare that Israel must be judged, and more importantly must judge itself by a standard significantly higher than that of its neighbors, many of its detractors are so quick to paint a caricature of the country as some neo-Third Reich beyond the pale of respectability that it makes it easy for the average citizen to recoil and adopt a bunker mentality. And Israelis can hardly be considered paranoid (or apathetic) about boycotts when one gleans over their short history: Israelis remember all too well the way in which Third World countries swiftly cut ties following the OPEC crisis of 1973, culminating in the infamous ‘Zionism is Racism’ General Assembly of 1975, and the sense of international isolation felt throughout much of the seventies.

But Israelis who feel somewhat ‘inoculated’ to the dangers of a boycott are, if not deluded, prone to a selective viewing of history. It is easy to view Israel’s international isolation during that time period through a romantic lens of ‘us against the world’. While it was surely a blow to lose its allies in places like Sub-Saharan Africa that Israel and painstakingly cultivated ties with since its inception, ultimately, it’s fate-politically, economically, culturally, diplomatically-was tied to the West. Developing countries were geopolitically far weaker than they are today, many still in the early stages of state building, and had far less to offer from an economic point of view. Most importantly, it was easy to view Israel’s rejection by these states, as well as the regular condemnations by the USSR and her allies, exclusively through the bipolar prism of the Cold War as the hypocritical ranting of a group of patently undemocratic nations. In rejecting Israel, Israel could reaffirm its place in the world as a beacon of democracy in a sea of tyranny.

 In an ironic twist, it is now these non-Western states that were so quick to shun Israel in the past that the right looks to for succor in the face of Western censure over its settlement policy. On the face of it, Trade Minister Bennett’s discussion of economic diversification is perfectly rational; Israel should certainly not feel obliged to rest solely on its traditional relationship with Europe and the United States in maintaining its economic well-being, and in an ever interconnected world, it behooves the state of Israel to take advantage of the emerging markets out of its traditional sphere of operations, particularly in growing powerhouses like India and China.

Yet, Bennett’s cheery predictions regarding these two rising economic powers shows a selective, and troubling reading of history, namely that during the Cold War, neither of these countries was particularly indisposed to Israel, the former (a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement) displaying outright hostility to Israel in international forums. Bennett must certainly also be aware that prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Israel’s relations with India were only on a consular level and were nonexistent with those of China. Both have repeatedly voted against Israel (and continue to do so) in international forums whenever the topic of the Palestinians arises; what makes him think that, given the existence of general boycott, and the desire to maintain good relations with Western markets, that such a situation would change?

At the present moment, there is simply no substitute for trade and close ties with the West, and in particular, with the European Union, which accounts for a whopping 1/3rd of Israel’s overall trade. Despite the caricature of the EU as a staunchly pro-Palestinian bloc wholly indifferent or hostile to Israel’s very-real security needs, the constant deepening and strengthening of economic and academic ties between Israel and Europe shows no signs of abating, despite major differences of opinion on settlements, a policy that will eventually change, most likely in an unfavorable way towards Israel. Right-wing politicians may cynically score political points with their constituents by demonizing the Europeans as crypto anti-Semites, but they do nothing to alleviate the slow deterioration of ties that is occurring because of settlement building.

Signs of impatience were already evident in the stipulations included in the Horizons 2020 agreement earlier this year, preventing funding beyond the Green Line, and calls for the labeling (but, one should note, not the outlawing) of settlement products have reached a fever pitch. If peace talks do not resume shortly, one can be certain that this initiative will come to a head. Contrary to popular belief in Israel, the EU is doing everything in its power NOT to impose an economic boycott on the Israeli market; the labeling of goods is perhaps seen as a happy medium to satisfy more radical voices who believe that the Israelis must pay a price for settlement building.

In the past, the EU could be counted on to, if not vote with Israel in the UN, then to at the very least refrain from voting for one-sided condemnations in the General Assembly, a fact that too many Israelis are quick to ignore. If the Israeli far right continues to gain in strength and a peace deal with the Palestinians remains elusive, such support cannot be guaranteed in the future. The West’s support of Israel is, after all, based in part on the notion that it adheres to democratic norms, a fact that the Israeli right itself is always quite keen to emphasize. Why then, if the country becomes less democratic, more theocratic, and intransigent regarding the peace process, should the rest of the Western world (and the US, which provides Israel with massive amounts of aid, in particular) continue to view Israel as one of it’s own, and thus treat it accordingly?

The question must also be asked: how does one define ‘prevailing’ against a possible boycott? Can such resilience be measured purely in economic terms? Israelis in the past who withstood boycotts were much more insular, and far less exposed to the outside world; it thus became much easier to take comfort in that insularity. The generation of Israelis who grew up in a post Cold War, post-Oslo world have become accustomed to feeling as though they are fully integrated into the West. It is rare to find an Israeli under the age of 30 (with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox) who has not spent an extended period of time traveling through South America or Southeast Asia, who does not aspire to work or study in the US and Europe, and who is not wholly versed in the latest Western cultural trends. It is difficult to imagine the psychological toll inflicted on its citizens if  all, or even some of these luxuries were no longer available to them. Prime Minister Menacham Begin once remarked that Israelis would rather live on bread and margarine than return lands won in the Six Day War. A generation ago, that might have very well been the case, but today, such a situation would be viewed as a catastrophe.

It may be easy to view the boycott movement as a cause célèbre; notwithstanding its overall ineffectiveness, it shows no signs of abating any time soon.  The danger of boycott, therefore, is not that it will happen in one fell swoop, but rather, that it will occur in a piecemeal fashion, and that one day Israelis will wake stunned to realize that they have lost so much.

About the Author
Guy Frenkel is a New York-based American-Israeli peace activist, currently with the Blue White Future movement, as well as a number of other Israeli organizations working towards a two-state solution. All opinions expressed here are his alone.