Issue Brief: BDS In Perspective

In the ten years since it commenced, the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) has slowly but steadily risen in visibility. Today, both the Israeli government and some in the U.S. are presenting it as an existential threat to Israel. Therefore, it is important to determine exactly what we’re talking about when we discuss BDS and it is equally important that we take a critical look at what its real impact is.

The movement began in July 2005 with a joint call from a wide array of Palestinian civil society organizations, with three main demands: An end to the occupation that began in 1967; equal rights for Palestinians citizens within Israel; and protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is today Israel. The call was issued during the second intifada in part to present a non-violent alternative to what was perceived as the failure of armed struggle to achieve these goals.

The term “BDS” is widely understood to refer to the network of grassroots activists who are part of a global movement responding to this call to encourage boycotts of, divestment from, and ultimately international sanctions against Israel to achieve these goals. Groups and individuals involved in this network hold a variety of views on ultimate solutions to the conflict, but it is fair to say that the most visible leaders of the BDS movement generally support a vision of a single, secular and democratic state in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

This movement – its goals and its activism – is distinct from the many peace activists in Israel, Palestine, the United States and elsewhere, who confine their efforts to calls for boycotts of settlement products and divestment from businesses profiting from the 48-year old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Those groups take great pains to confine their efforts to Israel’s settlements and its occupation, while avoiding any such actions against Israel within its internationally recognized boundaries.

Crucially, the BDS movement is also distinct from recent actions by the European Union and the governments of many member states to distinguish between Israel within the pre-1967 lines – known as the Green Line – and the occupied territories. A July 2015 report by the European Council on Foreign Relations emphasizes that these actions and policies do not represent a policy shift by the European Union, but simply more faithful adherence to the EU’s existing laws.

Blurring the Green Line: Netanyahu, Congress and BDS working together

The key distinction is between Israel within the Green Line, and the occupied territories. Israel is understandably concerned about the potential consequences of Europe, its largest trading partner, more energetically enforcing their laws that make this distinction. For years, the EU has looked the other way on these regulations in the hope that the occupation would soon end and that the differentiation between Israel and the settlements would become moot.

More recently, as the peace process has stalled, the EU has renewed an effort to begin enforcing their existing laws more aggressively. The labeling of products imported from the settlements, rather than from Israel, is only the first step in this process. These laws are fully consistent with long-standing American policy that similarly does not recognize the legitimacy of Israeli settlements, unless and until their status is redefined in negotiations.

In Washington, the issue of BDS tends to be exaggerated, inflating the threat Israel faces apparently in order to produce legislation that would fundamentally alter the character of US foreign policy. For example, with the ostensible intention of protecting Israel from BDS, a provision was added to the recently passed Trade Promotion Authority bill (the so-called “fast track legislation) that requires the U.S. Trade Representative to discourage European Union countries from boycotting “Israel or persons doing business in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories” as part of free-trade negotiations between the U.S. and the EU.

The amendment treats Israel and the occupied territories as one unit, erasing the Green Line. Israel extends its law over its settlements, and many Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, regard the settlements as Israeli neighborhoods. However, neither the United States nor any other country has ever accepted this, and has always differentiated between the settlements and Israel proper. Blurring this important distinction could set a dangerous precedent for treating Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 lines no differently from the internationally recognized State of Israel. At the very least, it would create confusion amongst the United States’ allies as to what US policy regarding the occupied territories and their ultimate disposition really is.

It is important to recall that U.S. law already protects Israel against boycotts initiated by foreign governments. The Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Ribicoff Amendment to the Tax Reform Act of 1976 were enacted to protect Israel from the Arab League’s boycott against the State of Israel. The amendment to the fast-track bill adds nothing in this regard. Rather, it serves only one purpose: protecting settlements from pressure. This motivated the quiet lobbying the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) did to push this amendment.

Ironically, this very conflation is precisely what the most radical elements in the BDS movement strive to achieve. Those who believe that the only solution to the conflict is the end of Israel as a Jewish state and the creation of a single state in its place reject any distinction between, for example, the settlement of Ariel in the occupied territories and the city of Tel Aviv.  Similarly, those who support a messianic vision of “Greater Israel,” which requires permanent Israeli control of the occupied territories, reject any distinction between Haifa and the settlements inside Hebron.  For those who support a two-state solution that includes a secure, democratic and Jewish state of Israel living side by side with a secure, viable and independent Palestinian state, this conflation is extremely problematic.

What is the real impact of the global BDS movement?

There is no evidence that the European Union’s policies and actions regarding settlements are based on the actions of the BDS movement. On the contrary, it is the collapse of the peace process, the deepening of Israel’s occupation and the possible foreclosure of the two-state solution that have motivated these European moves.

In a letter to European Union Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini in April, sixteen European Foreign Ministers urged the labelling of products originating in the settlements, writing that: “European consumers must indeed have confidence in knowing the origin of goods they are purchasing. Green Line Israel and Palestinian producers will benefit from this.” Far from being motivated by the BDS movement, the ministers made it clear that it was the stalled peace process that provided the impetus for their recommendation. The goal was, in their words, “the preservation of the two-state solution.”

Likewise in the United States, the most prominent examples of concrete boycott- and divestment-related activism in the Israeli-Palestinian arena have focused unambiguously not on Israel but on the settlements and the occupation. These developments are the product of frustration with the failure of diplomacy to bring an end to the occupation, and a desire to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.

As in Europe, the actions involved are distinct from the efforts and goals of the BDS movement. For example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) heard a great deal from the BDS movement over the years in which it debated the decision it eventually adopted in 2014 to divest from companies it believed were profiting from Israel’s occupation. Yet the Church made it clear in its decision that it was not acting in concert with the BDS movement, but from its own principles – and it focused its activism not on Israel, but explicitly on the occupied territories.

After the vote to divest, PC (USA) issued a statement saying, “[O]ur action to selectively divest was not in support of the global BDS movement. Instead it is one of many examples of our commitment to ethical investing. We are pressed and challenged to follow our faith values and commitments in all times and in all areas of our lives. The occupation must end. All peoples in Israel and Palestine should live in security, freedom, and peace. This action is but one aspect of our commitment to work to this end.”

PC (USA) went on to explicitly reiterate its support for the existence of the State of Israel and for the two-state solution, clarifying that, “This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC (USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”

As of today, the BDS movement, in and of itself, is not a threat to Israel, either economically or in terms of security. The main impact of the BDS movement has been in generating an often-divisive debate, on American campuses, among academics faced with campaigns for academic boycotts and in getting a handful of celebrities to cancel or publicly declare their intent not to perform in Israel.

A very unfortunate response to the BDS movement has been the refusal, in many instances, to allow BDS activists to speak their piece in open debate. This attempt at ostracization, however, has backfired. It has provided the basis for the BDS movement to promote itself on free speech grounds, an argument which wins much more widespread sympathy than one that proposes economic action against Israel.

Moreover, the focus on the BDS movement too often ignores the main reason for its continued growth: the failure to end Israel’s occupation that began in 1967 and achieve Palestinian national liberation and sovereignty. The surest way to take the wind out of the BDS sails would be to work diligently to achieve those goals, and act against efforts that prevent them. An independent, sovereign and viable Palestine sharing peace, trade and security with Israel removes the impetus for both BDS and the often overly aggressive tactics being employed against it.

Check out the Issue Brief at the FMEP web site.

Let’s Take A Deep Breath on BDS

Yair Lapid, Israel’s former Finance Minister, told a hawkish “pro-Israel” gathering in New York that the leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (BDS) are anti-Semites and their followers are “bleeding heart, so-called intellectuals.” Lapid went on to say that European citizens and American students “…are cheering for the people and values that brought 9/11 to this country. You are supporting people that kill gays and suppress women.”

Mutual Demonization

Lapid is far from alone in elevating the movement to a threat on par with Israeli descriptions of Iran. Whether it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placing a high-ranking Likud Member of the Knesset in charge of battling BDS or grandstanding on the issue by prominent members of Congress, the “threat” of BDS has never seemed greater.

The hyperbole around the issue has never been greater either. All of it is transparently overblown to anyone who actually knows the various players in this game. The BDS movement is not made up, as Netanyahu’s Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked stated, of radical Islamists, anti-Semites and naïve fellow travelers.

I have known many BDS leaders for many years, as I have also known many of my fellow two-state supporters. I understand their motivations. I disagree often with BDS leaders, but I have never known most of them to wish for violence of any kind, express support for al-Qaeda or ISIL, or express animosity towards Jews as Jews. Many of these folks are, indeed, anti-Zionists, and support a single democratic state in all of what they call “historic Palestine.” I disagree with them on that point, but my disagreement does not mean they hate me, or I them.

That doesn’t mean there are no anti-Semites in the BDS movement. Any pro-Palestinian movement is naturally going to attract those who wish to hide their anti-Semitic agenda under a more acceptable cloak. This small minority within their ranks does not define them.

Unintended Consequences

Israelis, and too many of its supporters, continue to bury their head in the sand about Israel’s diminishing standing in the world. The blame is on Palestinian public relations, the reach of the BDS movement, global anti-Semitism, or their own failure to adequately explain their position to the world. The one thing it never is, according to the Netanyahu government and too many “pro-Israel” groups around the world is Israeli policy.

Part of avoiding the policy debate is presenting Israel as a country constantly facing imminent destruction. While Israel faces very real threats to its citizens, it has not faced an existential threat in a very long time. Iran has never been that, as many Israeli security experts have confirmed. If a deal limiting its nuclear program is finalized, the world is unlikely to buy Israeli complaints that Iran could ever “wipe Israel off the map.” So, BDS is being primed for the role of menacing villain.

For their part, the BDS movement seems to be feeding eagerly on Israeli public relations. Despite having had no discernible impact on Israel’s economy or its determination to maintain its occupation, they are trumpeting their success.

One can understand this, of course. Bibi needs the perception of an existential threat to bolster his politics of fear, while the BDS movement, a grassroots movement with little financial backing, needs to demonstrate its own effectiveness. These tactics, however, are damaging hopes of progress toward a resolution of this vexing conflict.

By avoiding moves to end its 48-year old occupation and exaggerating the BDS threat, Israel is actually proving that only substantive pressure will convince it to end the occupation. This is a point on which the BDS movement and I agree; I have argued for decades that the biggest obstacle to ending the occupation is that Israel, in this regard a country like any other, is expected to take what it perceives as a huge risk without any pressure. The occupation’s costs are largely covered by the European Union, United States and some Arab states, and despite the terrorist attacks Israel still occasionally endures, almost exclusively in the form of sporadic rocket fire from Gaza, the Palestinians have few means to pressure Israel. This is the logic behind the PLO’s international campaign, which must be understood as distinct from BDS.

Israel is running other risks as well. By conflating so many actors and actions with BDS tactics and movements, it risks galvanizing a much harsher opposition than it has seen in the past. Domestically, this false image of BDS is already being used to push the right wing’s assault on democracy even further, while reinforcing the Israeli sense that the “whole world is against us.”

The Effect of BDS

The fact is that any effect BDS has had on Israel’s economy is imperceptible. The economic issues Israel faces have no connection to any drop in exports or loss of investment. That does not mean it never will, but it does mean that the hysteria about BDS is way out of proportion with its impact to date. So, we are left with the most right-wing government in Israeli history governing a country whose citizens, even the majority that still supports a two-state solution, believe that ending the occupation carries major security risks. That is a country that will not change its policies absent significant pressure.

If we accept that self-evident fact, we confront the fact that many people and groups who do not wish to be associated with the BDS movement, its leadership and some of its specific goals have for years avoided any sort of organized economic action against Israel’s occupation. While one can hardly blame the BDS movement for this (in no way have they acted to prevent more moderate groups from taking actions aimed strictly at the occupation), it is an unintended consequence of their activities.

Netanyahu has taken full advantage of the political void this opens up. When the European Union wants to enforce existing laws that distinguish between products made in Israel and those from the settlements, it is considered a “sanction” against Israel; i.e. the “S” in BDS. As a result, liberal Zionist, centrist and many progressive groups avoid any hint of economic action against the occupation.

Groups like Americans for Peace Now (APN), one of the very few who are standing up to call for boycotting settlement products, are not getting the support they need. Yet the few instances of divestment or refusal to do business in the West Bank (most of which were not attributed to the BDS movement by the organizations that took such actions, some of whom even explicitly stated that they were not acting as part of that movement) have all been firmly rooted in opposition to the occupation. They have not been connected to the other conditions of the BDS movement’s call to action, regarding Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

The Need for Economic Action

It is unfair, however, to expect the BDS movement to abandon its tactics because they are being used to scare more moderate peace groups away from action. Instead, it is the responsibility of moderates, two-state solution supporters and those who support Israel but loathe the occupation to stand up for our beliefs. Let the BDS movement do what it is doing. If you are really worried that BDS will “de-legitimize” Israel with rhetoric, then counter it with a principled, pro-Israel stand for Palestinian rights and statehood and an end to the occupation.

The distinction that Netanyahu and his cohorts in AIPAC and in Congress are trying to blur must be sharpened instead. The settlements are not Israel. They are an immoral and illegal enterprise that should not be supported — through tax dollars, investment or purchases. From such a position, classifying corporations that are profiting from the occupation, especially American ones as “socially irresponsible” can be supported on a pro-Israel basis. From that position, groups can stand up for Israel and support Israelis who are working to end the occupation, and combat the discrimination against Arabs that has become so bitter in recent years.

That is also a pro-Israel position from which Americans can demand that our government name the settlements the illegal enterprise they are, and treat them accordingly. It is a position from which one can promote a secure Israel within the Green Line that can, at long last, find some peace in that tumultuous region. It just has to stop denying millions of Palestinians their basic rights and any hope for the future. That, not Netanyahu’s demagoguery, is truly pro-Israel.

Presbyterians’ Divestment Proposal Stirs BDS Battle

This article originally appeared at LobeLog.7490913460_db2a152742_b

On June 14, members of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) will gather in Detroit, Michigan for their biennial General Assembly meeting. A lot of eyes will be focused on this gathering, particularly those who have managed to maintain interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict in the wake of the collapse of the “peace process.”

The Presbyterians are going to revisit a vote on divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation that failed in 2012 by a mere two votes. Given that narrow margin of victory (the final tally was 333-331 with two abstentions), many believe it might just pass this time. As a result, pro-divestment groups have reinvigorated their efforts to support Presbyterian divestment, while opponents have redoubled their efforts to oppose the resolution. Continue reading

Boston Globe Backs Stephen Hawking on Boycott of Israeli Conference

The story of Stephen Hawking’s decision to pull out of the Israeli President’s Conference just got more interesting. A major United States newspaper, the Boston Globe, published an editorial offering strong support for Hawking, and, while not supporting or opposing boycotting Israel as a tactic, took a firm stance in saying that the boycott tool is a legitimate, non-violent means to protest Israeli policies. It actually called the “overreaction” to Hawking’s decision an impediment to finding a resolution to this vexing conflict.

Perhaps the most important part of the Globe’s editorial was this: “The movement that Hawking has signed on to aims to place pressure on Israel through peaceful means. In the context of a Mideast conflict that has caused so much destruction and cost so many lives, nonviolence is something to be encouraged.”

This is a truly groundbreaking shift in the US discourse around the Israel-Palestine conflict. Among many infuriating tricks the supporters of Israeli policies (be they supporters of hard-line Likud policies, or supporters of endless negotiations as pushed for by the previous Kadima governments) have employed over the years, one has recently become more prominent: casting support for Palestinian rights as a tactic designed to “destroy Israel,” thus blanketing even non-violent actions in language that defines the action as being violence by other means. The point is that once actual Palestinian violence diminished, it was crucial that Israel still be seen as somehow facing an “existential threat.”

For years, the mantra has been that the Palestinians are bent on destroying Israel, and their whole movement is nothing more than a cover for their raging hatred of Jews. This mode of thinking, in various forms, resurged, for understandable reasons, during the second intifada, which witnessed by far the most inter-communal violence since the 1948 war (however imbalanced that violence might have been).

So, in 2005, towards the end of that bloody uprising, 171 Palestinian civil-society groups issued their call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) directed against Israel. “These non-violent punitive measures,” the appeal asserted, “should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people‘s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.” The groups defined that compliance as ending the occupation, ending discrimination in form and practice against Palestinian citizens, and “Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

One may agree or disagree with those goals, and certainly anyone who disagrees is perfectly justified in opposing the BDS movement. But supporters of Israeli policy are not entitled, on one hand, to berate the Palestinians for using violence to end the occupation and address their dispossession while, on the other, to condem them for using non-violent means such as these proven methods to achieve their goals.

The Globe editorial appeared a day after my weekly column at did. There, I wrote the following: “Ultimately, one can support or oppose a boycott. But the BDS movement was conceived as a way to advance the Palestinian cause without physical violence. There are good reasons, not based in a lack of understanding of the conflict, much less in anti-Semitism, why people support the boycott. Do pundits really want to send the message that a non-violent method is unacceptable? What options does that leave for the Palestinians, now that they have irrefutable proof that the Israeli government is farther away than ever from a willingness to end the occupation and the United States is more feeble and feckless than ever? Oppose the boycott if you wish, but trying to make it illegitimate is self-defeating and inspires more violence.”

Israel’s supporters have constructed a paradigm that states that the only method that can be used to oppose the occupation and promote Palestinian rights is to ask Israel, very nicely, to grant these things. The Globe editorial is proof positive that this paradigm is crumbling.

Challenging the notion that Israel should only be persuaded (with carrots), and never pressured (with sticks or at least the withdrawal of carrots) to end its occupation and oppression of Palestinians has had some watershed moments in recent years. Most notably in the United States, perhaps, was the publication of John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s paper and book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Hawking’s action and the shift in discourse that the Globe’s implicit legitimization of the BDS movement may well mark the beginning of another.

The more such popular, cultural, economic, and political pressure on Israel to change course is seen as acceptable, the more possible it becomes for US Middle East to change, as well. And that, in turn, increases the possibility that the Israeli public and elite will reassess the country’s current trajectory and where it is taking them. That, to be sure, is still a very distant dream. But our policy has largely been formed by interest groups leading and the government following. As our discourse shifts more, even some of our most feckless politicians will eventually have to follow.