What BDS and the Israeli government have in common

Few of the people accused of boycotting Israel actually advocate or adhere to the central demands of the Palestinian boycott call. Ironically, those same people may be in the best position to help end the occupation.

By Ran Greenstein

JVP Boston activists protest the Veolia transportation company for operating bus lines serving settlements in the West Bank. November 14, 2012. (Tess Scheflan/ Activestills.org)
[Illustrative photo] JVP Boston activists protest the Veolia transportation company for operating bus lines serving settlements in the West Bank. November 14, 2012. (Tess Scheflan/ Activestills.org)
Opposition to the BDS movement has become a crucial test of loyalty to the pro-Israel cause in the U.S. Jewish community in recent months. It has not replaced the Iranian nuclear program as the most prominent cause for alarm raised by the Israel lobby and its allies, but it is moving in that direction.

Naturally enough, this heightened publicity is being celebrated by BDS activists as proof that their campaign is working effectively, and that they do indeed constitute a major problem for the Israeli government and its supporters. What better demonstration of your success than the fear of your opponents?

On the face of it this seems a bit curious. There is a big discrepancy between the achievements of the movement so far and the attention it has been getting. Without wishing to underestimate the impact of the campaign, it has been endorsed by student societies on a dozen university campuses in the U.S. and Europe, and by a couple of academic associations. Most of these expressions of support have focused only on the first of the three goals of the movement: to oppose the 1967 occupation, support the right of return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and advocate full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Rarely has any high-profile group or body come out in support of all three goals combined.

If this is the case indeed, how can we explain the hysteria that has engulfed sections of the hasbara apparatus, in Israel and overseas, as expressed in speeches, legislation and expressions of outrage? To understand the issue we have to make a distinction between two types of BDS, which have been conflated in public discourse.

The first type is the BDS movement as embodied in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). It is centered on the three goals outlined above and it regards them as package deal necessary to dismantle the Israeli system of colonial control. Obviously, the BDS movement has never denied the importance of fighting the 1967 occupation as a central goal in its own right. But, it has emphasized the need to go beyond it in order to challenge the structure of the Israeli state and all its policies vis-à-vis Palestinians, and not merely those related to the occupation. From that perspective, a focus on opposing the 1967 occupation is not wrong in itself, but can be problematic if it comes at the expense of the two other goals.

The second type is a less organized and coordinated campaign, which includes many disparate initiatives ranging from boycotts of settlement products to severing commercial relations with Israeli companies that provide services to settlements and their residents, or are involved in maintaining the occupation, or simply operate in and from the occupied territories. Generally this campaign is meant to apply pressure from the outside on the Israeli state and its agencies in order to force them to change their policies vis-à-vis the 1967 territories and their residents.

The argument presented here is that while the first type of BDS represents a minor nuisance for the Israeli state, the second type is a major threat to its policies. Conflating the two and hyping the danger of the first type is in the interest of both the current Israeli government and the BDS movement. How is that possible?

Let us discuss the Israeli reaction first. When we look at the forces in Israel which highlight the danger of the BDS movement, the hard-right and settlers lead the way. They do that because they wish to disguise the major cause for the current wave of criticism of Israel, the 1967 occupation and in particular the settlements. Their goal is to show that calls for boycotts and sanctions stem not from specific Israeli policies but from opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel (or its existence as a ‘Jewish state’), which itself stems from anti-Semitism or simply from hatred of Israel, regardless of its policies.

By focusing on the BDS movement and its three combined goals, and thus erasing the specific nature of the campaign against the occupation, Netanyahu wishes to bolster his position that a withdrawal from the occupied territories will not solve the conflict, and that criticizing the settlement project as an obstacle to peace is misguided. Paradoxically, the BDS movement shares a similar approach, albeit from an opposite moral perspective: it agrees that putting an end to the occupation is not enough and that other steps must be taken, which amount to the abolition of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel (though not abolition of the State itself). It claims credit for all external pressure on Israel, regardless of its specific focus.

In contrast, centrist forces in Israel – including much of the professional diplomatic apparatus – are aware that recent efforts in Europe to apply pressure on Israel stem primarily from opposition to the occupation, not opposition to the state itself. These efforts can cause enormous economic damage to Israel through withdrawal of investment, cancellation of scientific projects, termination of joint economic ventures, conditioning funding on change of policies, and other such steps. To be condemned by a student or academic association is one thing; to face boycott by major global economic actors is quite another.

These centrist forces wish to make a clear distinction between the supposedly benevolent core of the Israeli state – in its pre-1967 boundaries – and the malevolent policies of occupation and settlement. While opposed to the BDS movement, they use the threat of boycotts and sanctions that target the occupation to reinforce their own calls for a more moderate and conciliatory foreign policy. Such a policy would retain the nature of Israel as a Jewish state, but would show readiness to withdraw from the majority of the occupied territories and dismantle many of the settlements, in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

Some of these centrist forces have come up with their own calls for boycotts and sanctions that target settlements and their products, referred to – at times in a supportive and at times a derogatory manner – as Zionist BDS. The problem with this approach, however, is that the settlements do not fund, arm and legislate themselves into existence. They are being actively supported by the Israeli state and society as a whole. To target the settlements on their own, without dealing with the vast political, military and financial infrastructure that makes them possible, is to fail to correctly identify the problem and address it. At the same time, the BDS movement with its three goals makes a broad front – united by opposition to the occupation – difficult. Many potential supporters of the anti-occupation campaign are reluctant to join an initiative that requires support for all three goals of the movement, and particularly the right of return of refugees.

How can we square the circle then? A focus on boycott and sanctions campaign that targets the 1967 occupation and all the institutions that sustain it (whether based in the occupied territories or within Israel ‘proper’) could unify the disparate efforts around a core slogan: putting an end to the occupation. It would not require support for other demands (and thus scare away those opposed to them), and would not limit itself to the settlements (and thus shield institutions based in Israel itself, which play a crucial role in entrenching the occupation and the settlements). It would build on the broad global consensus in opposition to the occupation, which unites most of the international community and the Arab world with the Palestinian people, and sections of the Israeli-Jewish population and Jews elsewhere.

Crucially, such a united front should not prevent refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel from continuing to campaign on their issues, but without having to use the same vehicle to convey their concerns and wage their struggles. The BDS movement clearly gets something right: the 1967 occupation is not the first or only problem facing Palestinians. Rather, it is the entire machinery of colonial control that is the problem. But a single, overall problem does not necessarily get solved by a single, overall campaign. Forming specific alliances to address specific components of the situation may be a better way forward.

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