Is it fair to boy­cott Is­rael? The mo­men­tum grows...


In board­rooms and cam­puses, on so­cial me­dia and in celebrity cir­cles, mo­men­tum seems to be grow­ing for a global pres­sure cam­paign on Is­rael. The at­mos­phere re­calls the boy­cotts that helped de­mol­ish apartheid South Africa a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago.

Is­rael and its par­ti­sans can be ex­pected to mount a fe­ro­cious de­fense, but their public re­la­tions Achilles’ heel may be the Jewish set­tle­ments in the West Bank.

The boy­cott no­tion has been around for years. For­mer Pink Floyd front­man Roger Wa­ters has long called on fel­low artists to avoid per­form­ing in Is­rael, with limited suc­cess.

A new spur ap­pears to come with the March re-elec­tion in Is­raeli of the hard-line Benjamin Ne­tanyahu — de­spite ex­tra­or­di­nary op­po­si­tion both in­ter­na­tion­ally and do­mes­ti­cally, among the coun­try’s se­cu­rity, aca­demic, artis­tic and me­dia es­tab­lish­ments.

Last week, Is­raelis saw FIFA, the world’s main soc­cer body, con­sider their coun­try’s ex­pul­sion at the re­quest of t he Pales­tini­ans, who at the last minute with­drew it. This week they heard that the French tele­coms gi­ant Or­ange wants to ter­mi­nate its re­la­tion­ship with the Is­raeli com­pany that li­censes its brand. Then came tes­ti­monies by aca­demics sug­gest­ing they were al­ready fac­ing an un­de­clared boy­cott — a big deal in a place that prides it­self on its No­bel prize-win­ners. In­creas­ingly prom­i­nent is the so-called “BDS” (boy­cott-dis­in­vest­ment-sanc­tions) move­ment, run by Pales­tini­ans and left­ist ac­tivists from around the world.

In Is­rael, politi­cians have lined up to of­fer re­sponses, and the talk of the town is how to de­fend against the boy­cott peril from abroad.

Com­par­isons of its treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans to the for­mer South African apartheid sys­tem have long been re­jected by Is­rael and its sup­port­ers. They also ask why the world fo­cuses so much on Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans when there are so many op­pres­sive regimes around the world.

They ar­gue that op­po­si­tion to Is­rael’s oc­cu­pa­tion of lands the Pales­tini­ans want for their fu­ture state of­ten masks a more far-reach­ing aim of destroying the Jewish state as a whole. In some cases, ac­tu­ally, it openly does so.

The key part of the Is­raeli de­fense rests on Is­rael’s demo­cratic cre­den­tials: the coun­try’s Arab mi­nor­ity, shar­ing an eth­nic­ity with its enemies, has cit­i­zen rights, and in fact, an Is­raeli Arab po­lit­i­cal party just posted the third-best re­sult in the elec­tion.

Lack of Rights for West Bank


Crit­i­cally, how­ever, this ar­gu­ment ex­cludes dis­cus­sion of the lack of rights for Pales­tini­ans in the oc­cu­pied West Bank. Over 2 mil­lion Pales­tini­ans live in the ter­ri­tory, which along with Gaza was seized from Jor­dan in a war that be­gan ex­actly 48 years ago, on June 5, 1967. They face an ar­ray of dif­fi­cul­ties, from lim­its on move­ment, to a mori­bund econ­omy, to ar­rests and in­dig­ni­ties at check­points.

Is­rael’s de­fense, when it claims it is a democ­racy, is that the West Bank is not part of Is­rael — just as Iraq was not part of the United States af­ter the 2003 in­va­sion.

But there are key dif­fer­ences.

Is­rael builds towns there: about a half-mil­lion Is­raelis live ei­ther in West Bank set­tle­ments or in for­mer West Bank land in­cor­po­rated into east Jerusalem, also oc­cu­pied in the 1967 war.

The Is­raeli set­tlers can vote in Is­raeli elec­tions and serve in gov­ern­ment as if they live in Is­rael, but the Pales­tini­ans living in the ter­ri­tory can­not.

Is­rael also con­trols the West Bank’s only ex­ter­nal bor­der, with Jor­dan, which has re­nounced its claim to the land in fa­vor of the Pales­tini­ans. The West Bank’s other bor­der, with Is­rael, is a bor­der mostly for the Pales­tini­ans; Is­raelis can freely cross, ex­cept for cross­ings into sev­eral Pales­tinian au­ton­o­mous zones where Is­raelis are gen­er­ally re­stricted.

The Pales­tini­ans have vot­ing rights in th­ese au­ton­o­mous zones and cast bal­lots for their own lead­ers, but gen­eral elec­tions have not been held for about a decade; and the Pales­tinian Author­ity, which rules the is­lands of au­ton­omy, is far less pow­er­ful than Is­rael. For decades, most diplo­matic ef­forts have been geared to­ward mov­ing to­ward a sep­a­rate Pales­tinian state in de­fined bor­ders living in peace side-by-side Is­rael. But some Pales­tini­ans by now have de­spaired of the so-called “two-state” so­lu­tion, con­clud­ing af­ter two decades of failed on-and-off peace ef­forts that the sides will never agree on terms. The al­ter­na­tive, they say, is a sin­gle state in all of for­mer Bri­tish Pales­tine.

That would mean Is­rael an­nex­ing the West Bank and giv­ing its Pales­tini­ans the right to vote. Count­ing Is­raeli Arab cit­i­zens, Arabs then would make up about 40 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

Is­rael pulled out of the Gaza Strip — the other part of the would-be Pales­tinian state — in 2005. But “one-staters” see Gaza, with an­other al­most two mil­lion Pales­tini­ans, as part of the equa­tion. And so, down this path, the Arab-Pales­tini­ans and Jewish-Is­raeli pop­u­la­tions would be roughly equal in a uni­fied state.

Such a sce­nario would be fright­en­ing to the Is­raeli Zion­ist left, which wants Is­rael to re­main “the Jewish state” but also be demo­cratic, re­quir­ing a large Jewish ma­jor­ity. So many Is­raeli Zion­ists would be ex­tremely ea­ger for Is­rael to back off the set­tle­ment project and cre­ate a greater par­ti­tion now, with or with­out the Pales­tini­ans’ con­sent to the bor­ders and other pa­ram­e­ters.

Such a uni­lat­eral move by Is­rael would cer­tainly not pla­cate the Pales­tini­ans, es­pe­cially since it would not in­clude east Jerusalem and the walled Old City, key to their am­bi­tions for their own state.

But it could pos­si­bly take a lot of the zip out of the boy­cott move­ment. Most Pales­tini­ans would no longer be oc­cu­pied by Is­rael; what re­mained would be a bor­der dis­pute with much less po­ten­tial to stir hearts glob­ally.

This would be op­posed by re­li­gious Is­raelis who op­pose a pullout from the West Bank be­cause they see it as bib­li­cally part of Is­rael — and right-wingers who em­pha­size the se­cu­rity risk. For now th­ese groups com­bined keep win­ning Is­raeli elec­tions.

For this rea­son, iron­i­cally, at least some Is­raelis sup­port the threat of boy­cotts: to con­vince their fel­low cit­i­zens that that they have a prob­lem that must, some­how, be ad­dressed.

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