The anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is gaining ground at a fairly rapid pace. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, some pro-Israel supporters who had previously downplayed this clear and present danger to Israel’s well-being have pressed the alarm button with alacrity.
The most recent lover of Zion to do so is the outspoken American businessman and Republican Party activist Sheldon Adelson, who has convened a conference this weekend at his Las Vegas casino to combat this growing phenomenon. (Unfortunately, organizations like JStreet, which reject his right-wing mantras on the Arab-Israeli conflict, were not invited to attend and were thus, ironically, boycotted).
The BDS movement — a non-violent expression of opposition to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs — has been slow to gain momentum. But in the past few years, it has taken off, particularly in western Europe and the United States, and now poses something of a strategic threat to Israel.
Just the other day, in an ominous development that bodes ill for Israel, the National Union of Students in Britain voted to ostracize the Jewish state in an academic boycott. More recently, in an unmistakable sign of the troubles that face Israel, Stephane Richard, the chief executive of Orange, a French telecommunications company with a brand in Israel, suggested he would leave the Israeli market “tomorrow morning” if not for legal and financial obstacles. (Subsequently, Richard claimed he had been misunderstood).
If this trend continues unabated, as it probably will, Israel may become the new old South Africa — a white settler pariah nation which was justly condemned for practising apartheid, a system of institutionalized racism and segregation.
It’s true that some BDS acolytes, in backing the Palestinians’ right of return to their former homes in what was pre-1948 Palestine, are driven by an unconcealed desire to obliterate Israel. Others, however, stop short of that objective, endorsing a two-state solution and calling an end to discrimination against the Arab citizens of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a far less nuanced view of BDS.
On May 31, in simplistic and self-serving comments, he likened the movement to antisemitic libels of the past. Claiming “we have done nothing wrong, and we have not erred,” Netanyahu said that the international campaign to isolate Israel is connected not to his policies with respect to the Palestinians, but rather to “our very existence.” As he put it, “This is a phenomenon that we have known in the history of our people.”
In promoting this skewed argument, Netanyahu is deceiving himself and ardent backers like Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu is trying to create a false relationship between valid criticism of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the vile spectre of antisemitism. It will not wash, at least among pragmatic and progressive people who regard the status quo as untenable and inimical to Israel’s long-range interests as a democratic Jewish state.
It’s abundantly clear that Netanyahu is playing a role in leading Israel to a binational state solution.
As Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister, has observed, Israel cannot assure its rightful place in the world unless its leadership changes course and sincerely seeks a historic accommodation with the Palestinians based on the universally accepted land-for-peace formula.
In Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate Palestinian leader, Israel has a partner with whom it can do business. Netanyahu, having promised Israelis that a Palestinian state will not be established during his premiership, thinks otherwise. So the diplomatic impasse continues, with its inevitable repercussions.
If the gnawing Palestinian issue remains unresolved, the anti-Israel boycott movement is bound to thrive and prosper. The Israeli government won a victory of sorts when the Palestinian Authority failed in its attempt to suspend Israel from FIFA, the governing body of global soccer. But in the future, Israel’s chances of fending off boycotts are bound to diminish. Mustafa Barghouti, a West Bank Palestinian leader in the forefront of the BDS movement, was correct in observing that the Orange episode represents “the tip of an iceberg.”
Netanyahu can say what he wishes about the inextricable association between BDS and antisemitism. But the truth is more complicated. In the final analysis, Netanyahu’s aversion to a two-state solution is one of the drivers of the boycotts, which will continue to bedevil Israel.
The sooner he acknowledges this, the better off Israel will be, now and in the years ahead.