BDS-mania takes over Israel — for a week

Boycott is all anybody can seem to talk about this week in Israel. But neither side should rush to declare victory quite yet: Israel still refuses to see that the occupation is the problem, and boycotters have yet to make any real gains.

Palestine solidarity protesters supporting the BDS movement, 2010. (Photo by Stephanie Law/CC, cropped)
Palestine solidarity protesters supporting the BDS movement, 2010. (Photo by Stephanie Law/CC, cropped)

If you got your news exclusively from the Israeli media over the past two weeks it would be entirely reasonable to wonder if the sky is falling. It seems like there has been near-24-hour coverage of the attempt to boot Israel from FIFA, university presidents warning that the academic boycott is snowballing toward a point of no return, a boycott endorsement by the UK’s largest student union, and now, international telecom giant Orange announcing that it will pull its brand out of Israel.

We have seen similar moments in recent years — when Stephen Hawking announced he would stay away from Israel, for example — but there is something that feels more serious this time around. The country’s best-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, announced it was enlisting in the war against boycott (a rather cynical considering the Israeli news media is probably the only industry that actually profits from BDS via increased ratings). Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described BDS as a “strategic threat of the first degree,” saying that he is a soldier in the fight against it. And just weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a senior government minister, Gilad Erdan, as the country’s anti-boycott csar.

So what is happening? You wouldn’t know it from the internal Israeli discourse but the writing has been on the wall and the font has been getting bigger and bolder over the past year. With the collapse of the U.S.-led peace process, Netanyahu’s repeated disavowal-turned-indefinite-shelving of a two-state outcome, and the election of Israel’s most right-wing government ever, the world — and Europe in particular — has simply run out of patience.

Related: If Netanyahu is re-elected, Israel has a Europe problem

The European Union in particular has been making regular warnings, spelling out the consequences for perpetuating the occupation. During the final throes of the latest peace process, EU officials in Brussels were telling Israeli diplomats and journalists alike that there would be “no more business as usual” should the peace process finally be allowed to die — if the occupation is not given an expiry date. Europe-based international companies have been receiving warnings from their home countries about doing business in or with Israeli settlements. (The European Union, like most of the world, considers settlements to be illegal under international law.)

News that Orange intends to pull its brand from the Israeli market demonstrates just how painful European disengagement from settlements could be for Israel. Europe’s strategy thus far has been to try and halt financial and business relationships with Israeli entities beyond the Green Line, all while maintaining close ties with Israel proper. The problem is that no such distinction exists in Israel anymore. Companies like Partner Communications, the Orange franchisee in Israel, do not think twice about operating in the settlements — it’s not even a question. Israel’s major banks do not hesitate to finance the construction of settlements and to give mortgages to settlers, despite international consensus on the illegality of the entire enterprise.

An Orange-branded cellular store in Tel Aviv, June 5, 2015. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/
An Orange-branded cellular store in Tel Aviv, June 5, 2015. (Photo by Yotam Ronen/

The Orange case also shows how seemingly uninvolved companies can be directly complicit in the displacement of Palestinians, the theft of their land, and supporting illegal settlers — all while making a healthy profit. As reported here on +972 earlier this year, for 12 years Orange franchisee Partner paid rent to Israeli squatters — who stole privately owned Palestinian land to build an illegal settlement — for the rights to operate cellular antennas. The Israeli military has also given Israeli cellular companies a monopoly on cellular data services, making operating in the West Bank all the more more profitable.

And yet, the excitement surrounding Orange, FIFA, and the warnings of Israeli university presidents is largely sensationalism. The FIFA challenge never had a very high chance of success, the university presidents were simply sounding an alarm, and Orange and the French government both rushed to clarify that they oppose the boycott of Israel and that they support Israel. The non-stop media coverage will soon subside.

But soon enough there will be another crisis, another sense of looming isolation and a new string of boycott successes. And once again, instead of acknowledging that the occupation is inviting disaster on Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu and others will continue to deflect blame onto anti-Semitism.

Responding to Yedioth’s anti-boycott campaign this week, Dr. Tomer Persico wrote:

It is a dynamic that is as predictable as it is depressing: a country suffering from negative international treatment entrenches itself in self-righteousness and sees any criticism as illegitimate.

That is not to say that there exists no anti-Semitism or unfair criticism of Israel. Both exist — but they always did. Today, the problem is only consolidating: the occupation, which is approaching its 50th year, does not allow Israel to present itself as having clean hands. Until we reach an agreement with the Palestinian people, criticism of Israel will be considered legitimate and deserved, along with the sanctions that will be placed on the country.

“The international community does not believe that Israel is serious about a two-state solution,” U.S. President Obama said this week in an interview on Israeli television. What Obama was warning of but didn’t actually spell out, is that boycotts and international pressure campaigns do not aim to punish Israel but rather to exert enough pressure so that it changes its calculus so that it gets serious — serious enough to end the occupation.

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