Ana Gomes, a member of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament, organized last month a conference on EU and the legality of the Israeli settlements and the on-going occupation of Palestinian territories since the six-day war in 1967.
By inviting Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the controversial BDS movement, which calls for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel, Ana Gomes, a Portuguese Socialist, entered a veritable minefield. But since becoming a MEP in 2004 she has not hesitated in taking on difficult questions, especially if they concern what she considers regional and global security.
Not only did she expose herself before and during the event for allegations of anti-Semitism from pro-Israeli organisations for opening up the parliament for an organisation which has been accused of anti-Semitism under the disguise of anti-Zionism. The parliament president, Antioni Tanjani, also tried to intervene in the event.
Referring to complaints from four different political groups (ALDE, ECR, EPP and S&D), he wrote that they had underlined that Barghouti opposes a two-state solution and incites hatred and violence in his extreme rhetoric against Israel. Inviting him would put the reputation of the parliament at risk. That said, he did not forbid Gomes to go ahead with the event under her own responsibility.
The event did not become a platform for anti-Semitism, as Tanjani feared, but her own reputation might have been tarnished by lashing out against the opposition against the event and by organizing a one-sided conference where she expressed her unqualified support for Barghouti and his movement.
Pro-Israeli organisations, on the other hand, organized last year their own one-sided conference in the European Parliament against the BDS movement without mentioning the “elephant in the room” (the occupation and the settlements). Everyone enjoys freedom of expression in the parliament.
Ana Gomes has definitely not the support of her own party but several MEPs have rallied to her side because of what she calls a smear campaign against her. During the event, a banner for S&D was removed from the podium by party functionaries. A spokesperson for the party stressed that the event was organised by Gomes in her capacity as individual MEP.
“Inviting and giving the floor to the founder and leader of the BDS movement does not reflect the S&D Group’s political position,” said the spokesperson. “We share the EU position as repeatedly expressed by High Representative Federica Mogherini: The EU rejects the BDS campaign’s attempts to isolate Israel and is opposed to any boycott of Israel.”
For Barghouti, this was his first visit to the European Parliament. He accused EU of failing to uphold its legal obligations and being complicit in the Israeli occupation which he described as an on-going Nakba, the disaster which befell the Palestinians when they fled or were forced to leave Palestine during Israel’s war of independence in 1948.
The movement which he co-founded in 2005 has tree objectives: ending the occupation, achieving equality between Jews and Palestinians in Israel and implementing the right of return of the refugees. He is aware that a mass return of refugees to Israel would transform the Jews to a minority in their own country and is the opposite of any two-state solution.
He claims that the BDS movement targets complicity in the occupation, not Jewish identity, but the full economic, cultural and economic boycott he calls for targets practically every Israeli institution and any Israeli representing them. In this the BDS mirrors the official Israeli position which does not any longer distinguish between Israel within the green line and the settlements.
Where does MEP Ana Gomes stand in this debate? In an interview after the conference she confirmed that she thinks that not only the settlements are illegal but the occupation itself. “The United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 considers illegal the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories following the Six-Day War in 1967.”
In fact, Israel has accepted the resolution which states the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war, the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every state in the area can live in security and the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the war.
A promising peace process with mutual recognition started in 1993 but failed largely because of its interim arrangements which allowed the conflict to drag on for years during which Palestinian terrorist attacks continued. The two sides were close a solution on Israeli withdrawal from the territories, including land swaps, when they met in Camp Davis in 1999, but it foundered on disagreement on Jerusalem and the right of return.
While the two sides blame each-other for the failures then and in following peace efforts, the occupation has become permanent with increasing Israeli settlement construction in the absence of a mutually acceptable peace solution. Does Gomes still believe that a two-two state solution can be achieved in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians?
“In my last visit to Palestine, in April 2016, I met several young educated Palestinians and I was struck and alarmed that all of them admitted having lost hope in the viability of the two-state solution,” she replies. Her impression confirms Nir Baram’s observations in his book on “A land without borders” (2016). One state or two states, what really matters to the Palestinians is living in dignity and freedom.
“In Palestine people are depressed and hopeless because they are facing humiliating occupation and repression daily, as a result of the ever expanding occupation. Israel cannot have a viable and safe Palestinian state as a partner, as long as its policies are focused on confining Palestinians to non-contiguous enclaves.”
Despite the frustrating development on the ground, Ana Gomes stresses that she continues to support the two-state solution. “I still believe that the only way to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians is through a negotiated final status agreement. But it cannot be oblivious of the realities on the ground and the mindset of those who should negotiate peace.”
This is also the reason why she thinks that it is important to engage in discussions with all relevant actors in both Israeli and Palestinian civil societies. She considers the BDS movement to be one of them, even if she may not agree with everything it stands for or even disagree with their points of view.
Is her position consistent with the BDS movement’s call for a full boycott of Israeli companies and institutions whether or not they are operating in the occupied territories?
“I understand the BDS call for full sanctions on Israel because of the persisting illegal occupation,” she replies. “I consider it as legitimate as the call on sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the past. I also believe it’s crucial to hear all opinions. And that is why I gave the floor and listened to comments and questions made by those who oppose BDS.”
But after the conference, she seems prepared to distance herself somewhat from the BDS movement. “At this stage, I don’t support a blind, general boycott on Israel. I believe in the need for EU engagement with both parties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A full boycott of Israel would make that engagement more difficult.”
A boycott of Israel may be welcomed by the Palestinians but will have the opposite effect on the Israeli public opinion and play into the hands of the Israeli government. A boycott does hardly leave any room for negotiations.
Ana Gomes counters that there would be no need for any boycott, if Israel and Palestine would make peace and the two states would cooperate as neighbours. She blames Israel for the stalemate in the peace process. “The responsibility for killing the peace process lies mainly with Israel.”
“The end of the occupation and the right of return would be achieved through the establishment of a Palestinian state. The conditions in which those goals would be achieved should be agreed by both sides through the peace process.” Whether Barghouti and his BDS movement agree with her is another matter.
She links the second goal of BDS – the issue of full rights for the Palestinians in Israel – to the conflict and says that the Israelis sooner or later will have to face a dramatic choice between preserving Israel as democratic and Jewish state and perpetuating the occupation. In a recent article, Ronald Lauder, president of the Jewish World Congress, wrote about the same stark choice.
“The real threat to the existence of Israel doesn’t come from the BDS movement but from Israel itself,” Gomes says.
In 2015, EU recommended member states to label settlement products to enable consumers to make an informed decision on whether to buy them. Next step might be a ban on settlement products in EU notwithstanding its implications for Palestinian labour. In this Gomes clearly supports the BDS movement.
A boycott of settlement products is surely no threat to Israel. The products play a marginal role in the Israeli economy and account only for approximately one percent of the total EU-Israeli trade. But the wider BDS movement, fueled by the occupation, is gaining terrain. Israel has better take the BDS-threat of intimating lawfare seriously.