Will boycotting Israel change it from within?
BY BEN WHITE
Israel’s ongoing military occupation of the West Bank and enforced siege on Gaza Strip, with its illegal policies from land colonization and settlements to blockade and collective punishment, has led to mounting frustration with the country’s conduct in political circles internationally. At the level of civil society in particular, this anger has found expression in a growing boycott.
The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign has been taken up globally and attracts new sympathizers every day. A key sticking point, however, between the movement’s supporters, and those among its opponents who acknowledge Israel’s human rights abuses, concerns BDS’ impact. According to critics, isolation strengthens the Israeli right and alienates an embattled Israeli left.
In that context, the main questions that arise are: Is BDS making a difference? How much possibility is there for ‘change from within?’ And, is BDS hindering, or aiding that change in Israel?
In recent years, the Israeli government’s stance on Palestinian statehood has ranged between unconvincing ambivalence and explicit opposition. Within the current ruling coalition, there is no meaningful opposition to that position.
More disturbingly still, there is no political force for peace waiting in the wings for the collapse of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which rules with a tiny majority.
Israel’s official opposition uniting the Labor party headed by Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah headed by Tzipi Livni, officially known as the Zionist Camp, says it supports a diplomatic process that leads to the creation of a Palestinian state.
In its manifesto, however, the Zionist Camp insists that in a “final status agreement” Israel would retain “settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]” and Jerusalem would be Israel’s “eternal capital.”
The latter point alone is a deal-breaker, with the Palestinians demanding that the current Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem be the capital of an independent state. In addition, Palestinian refugees would not return “within Israel.”
During the most recent election campaign, Herzog specified that under the Zionist Camp’s leadership, Israel would hold on to the Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim, and Ariel settlement blocs, thus cutting big chunks out of the West Bank, in addition to maintaining a presence in the Jordan Valley.
Just in the last few weeks, Herzog—who is seen abroad as the ‘moderate’ leader of a centrist Labor party—has praised the outlawing of the Islamic Movement northern branch (using British Mandate-era Emergency Regulations) as “a first step in protecting Israeli democracy.” He further declared European Union guidelines for labeling settlement goods as a “prize for terrorism” and called for a total closure of the West Bank.
Israel’s so-called centrists only look ‘moderate’ in comparison to the likes of Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett or Likud’s Tzipi Hotovely, representatives of the hard-right within the cabinet. The Kulanu Party, for example, headed by former Likud politician Moshe Kahlon, pledged in its election campaign to “keep a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel along with the main blocks of settlement [in the West Bank], and not allow the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.”
For the likes of Herzog, who has stated that with “regard to security,” he is “more extreme than Netanyahu,” a peace deal is not about recognizing the Palestinian people’s rights but protecting Israel’s ‘Jewish majority.’ As member of the Knesset, Ayman Odeh put it, “With a left like this, who needs a right?”
Palestinian MKs, meanwhile, are marginalized and harassed, regardless of the Joint Arab List’s decent showing in the last election (when they secured almost 11 percent of the popular vote). Since 1948, no Arab party has ever been part of a ruling coalition in Israel and there has only ever been two non-Jewish ministers (from more than 600 to date).
But what about Israel’s judiciary? If there is one institution viewed internationally as a reliable defender of human rights and curb on political excesses, it is the Israeli legal system and in particular, the Supreme Court.
The reputation of the Court is even used for propaganda purposes: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs boasts that the Court “upholds the rule of law and strengthens human rights,” while Israel advocacy groups speak proudly of the role of Israeli courts “in countering incidents of unfair discrimination when they do arise.”
Yet this year alone, the Court has rejected a petition against the Anti-Boycott Law; defended the expropriation of Palestinian land; given the green light for punitive home demolitions; approved the deportation of a Palestinian family from Jerusalem; accepted government plans to demolish Palestinian villages in the Negev and West Bank; and dismissed a petition to restore planning rights to Palestinian communities in 60 percent (‘Area C’) of the West Bank.
In other words, the enlightened Supreme Court—yes, that includes an “Arab judge,” the only one from 66 justices in the Court’s history— routinely rubber-stamps grave violations of international law, including collective punishment, forced evictions, and systematic discrimination.
Then there is the Israeli military, which lauds its own ability to conduct credible, internal investigations. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise.
On Aug. 1, 2014, during ‘Operation Protective Edge,’ Israel launched a devastating assault on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. A densely populated civilian area was pounded by airstrikes and shelling; according to Amnesty International, at least 135 Palestinian civilians were killed. To date, no one has been held accountable.
In their Rafah report, Amnesty concluded, “No official body capable of conducting such [independent and impartial] investigations currently exists in Israel.” The global NGO highlighted the existence of a “pervasive climate of impunity” in the Israeli military “that has existed for decades.”
Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem, explaining its refusal to cooperate with the “existing whitewashing mechanism” last September, pointed to the track record of an Israeli “military law enforcement system” the NGO described as “a complete failure.”
After ‘Operation Cast Lead’ (2008/2009), the Israeli military examined 400 incidents of suspected breaches of the law, producing 52 investigation and three indictments. The harshest sentence was given to a soldier “who stole a credit card.”
‘Operation Pillar of Defense’ in 2012, meanwhile, has not produced a single criminal investigation.
Last but not least, what about Israel’s civil society?
There is, unfortunately, no Israeli mass movement in solidarity with the Palestinians struggle. Citizens who challenge the regime are targeted by Israeli security.
Even those Israelis lauded abroad as ‘dissidents’ express views that elsewhere would put them firmly on the right. Musician Idan Raichel, for example, praised internationally for embodying “diversity and coexistence,” believes the role of artists “is to be recruited into Israeli hasbara” and defended a former army interrogator accused of torture.
Author Etgar Keret, presented as a prominent liberal leftwing Israeli, will not even boycott settlements.
“Israel’s existence or destruction was never a life-and-death question” for its Arab neighbors, Amos Oz, acclaimed Israeli author and ‘peacenik’, once said. “Maybe it has been for the Palestinians—but fortunately for us, they are too small to overcome us.”
The mainstream Israeli ‘left,’ whether in the Knesset or cultural halls of Tel Aviv, sees the Palestinians as a ‘problem’ to be managed; not colonized humans deserving of equality. Yossi Beilin, architect of the Oslo Accords, made an instructive confession in 2012. “My interest is not necessarily the Palestinian State,” he said. “I want a Jewish majority in [Israel] forever.”
To oppose BDS on the basis that it prejudices the possibility of ‘change from within’ is already a weak argument. It ignores the case for accountability for war crimes, the importance of Western companies and institutions ending their complicity in human rights abuses and the fact that a huge swathe of Palestinian groups are calling for BDS.
But the appeal to an Israeli ‘left,’ or ‘moderates,’ who will be damaged by a boycott is simply not based on the evidence. The politicians, judiciary and generals ensure impunity, and protect a status quo where there is, literally, one rule for Jewish Israelis, and another for Palestinians (be they citizens or under military rule). It is a status quo supported by the vast majority of Jewish Israelis.
Those hoping to obstruct the BDS campaign with concerns it will only strengthen the Israeli right should be asked when exactly Israel will be held to account: when there’s another massacre in Gaza? When the colonization of the West Bank expands that bit further?
As seen with the recent EU labeling furore, external pressure can, in the short-term, reinforce a right-wing, siege mentality. But that is why a step like labeling settlement goods is inadequate; it angers Israelis without actually exacting a cost for continued occupation and colonization.
It is only through international accountability, the kind of substantive, material pressure—through boycotts, arms embargoes and ultimately, state-level sanctions—that makes the status quo unsustainable, that there will be an incentive for change. Palestinians, in Gaza and the West Bank, the Galilee and Negev, in Jordan and Lebanon, cannot afford to wait.