[The following roundtable was organized by Matt Duss and published on the American Prospect. It features an introduction by Duss and arguments by Lisa Goldman, Noura Erakat, Hussein Ibish, and Brent Sasley.]
Introduction (By Matt Duss)
The issue of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel for its policies of occupation and settlement have increasingly received greater publicity, most recently because of the controversy over actress Scarlett Johanssen’s Super Bowl ad for Israeli company SodaStream, which has a factory in the occupied West Bank. In the wake of that controversy, I published a piece examining some of the issues involved, considering arguments of those supportive and opposed to BDS, in order to figure out where progressives should come down on the issue. As I noted in the piece, I recognize that other progressives could come to different conclusions, and in that spirit, thought it would be a good exercise to bring together a number of writers whose work I respect in order to think through the issue a bit more, and address some angles that maybe I missed.
BDS Needs American Allies (By Lisa Goldman)
For many years, the Israeli government has used security concerns as a means of explaining its reluctance to end its occupation of the West Bank. During the height of the Second Intifada, when suicide bombings occurred several times each week, this claim was an easy sell. The last suicide bombing was eight years ago, but in the popular Israeli imagination any Palestinian resistance is associated with violence against civilians. So when unarmed West Bank Palestinian villagers protest the expropriation of their land, the army calls them violent rioters and the Israeli public accepts this characterization largely without question—if they are paying attention at all, which is not very likely.
In recent years it has become very easy for Israelis to tune out the occupation, because they have stopped feeling it. The cafes, markets and buses are safe and the economy, particularly in greater Tel Aviv, the country`s economic and cultural center, is flourishing. Among the mainstream domestic media, onlyHaaretz continues to publish regular reports about the extensive abuses of the occupation. But Haaretz is read by only a tiny minority of Israelis and is often dismissed as an elitist publication catering to effete urban liberals. Its influence on the mainstream narrative is quite limited.
As a Jewish-Israeli resident of Tel Aviv who spent a fair amount time in the West Bank, I was frustrated by the unwillingness of my own friends to believe—or, perhaps more accurately, to be moved by—my accounts of what I had seen at the occupation. I wondered what would wake them up, but I was not particularly impressed by the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. Its victories, like bullying a few pop singers into canceling their Tel Aviv concerts or convincing one or two European companies to withdraw from tenders for infrastructure projects, seemed minor. As for the movement`s proponents, they came across as strident and their goals seemed unclear. Were they more interested in punishing Israel or in ending the occupation and improving the lot of Palestinians?
I`m still not sure about the BDS movement`s goal, and here I agree with Matt Duss: if its leaders are genuinely committed to ending Israel`s military occupation of the the West Bank and lifting its closure of Gaza, then they would benefit enormously from having allies among American progressives. And in order to win over those allies, they will need to be very clear about their goals. American Jews are disproportionately liberal, and many of them are distinctly uneasy about Israel`s policies. But they are reluctant to come out in favor of BDS precisely for the reasons that Norman Finkelstein asserted in an interview he gave about two years ago—i.e., that the goal of BDS was to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel`s right to exist within the 1948 borders. For a member of the organized Jewish community, even its liberal branches, this is not an acceptable position to hold.
To be clear: I have no ideological problem with boycott as a strategy. Nor do many Israelis. In December, for example, three actors with the Cameri, a prominent theater troupe,refused to perform in the settlement of Ariel. At the corner grocery store near my former home in Tel Aviv, the proprietor became so weary of answering his customers` inquiries about the provenance of his organic eggs that he finally put up a hand-lettered sign: “not from the [occupied] territories.” And I have seen passengers on taxi minivans plying the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv route chastise drivers who took Route 443, which cuts deeply into the West Bank but is prohibited to cars with Palestine Authority license plates.
But just as these gestures do more for the conscience of the boycotters than the well being of the Palestinians, so do I wonder if the full impact of an international boycott will be effective in convincing the Israeli government to negotiate a withdrawal from the West Bank. There is no doubt that Israelis fear BDS, and not only for economic reasons. For the average middle class Israeli, Europe is their backyard, and a place with which they feel a natural cultural affinity. Its cities are only four hours` flight from Ben Gurion Airport and are nearly in the same time zone. Perfect for long weekend getaways, shopping trips and business deals. As Larry Derfner puts it in +972 Magazine, Israelis would have a very hard time dealing emotionally with isolation from Europe. Larry argues that this fear of being isolated will incite Israelis to push their government toward a negotiated two-state solution. That would be ideal. But I am not sure that the popular response to a wider boycott, as John Kerry warned of earlier this month, would have the desired effect of pushing Israel to withdraw from Palestine. It might just turn make them feel paranoid, persecuted—and thus more recalcitrant.
The Power and Righteousness of BDS (Noura Erakat)
Under the veneer of a U.S.-brokered peace process and with a complicit Palestinian leadership, Israel has destroyed the two-state solution. All that remains of a Palestinian state is a set of non-contiguous Bantustans surrounded by Israeli settlers and settlement infrastructure lacking any meaningful sovereignty and which are politically, culturally, and geographically severed from the Gaza Strip. With the exception of Gaza—the largest Bantustan—the Jewish and Palestinian populations are inextricable and only separated by the vast divide of institutionalized privilege afforded to the Jewish population.
Meanwhile, Palestinians have organized themselves. In 2005, on the one-year anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion on the Separation Wall, the largest swath of Palestinian civil society organizations, individuals, and political parties issued a call for global solidarity to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel until and when it ended its occupation of Arab lands; it afforded equality to its Palestinian citizens; and it promoted the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
The Boycott National Committee (BNC) deliberately chose a rights-based approach, rather than a statist one, in an effort to represent the interests of all Palestinians, and not simply the fraction of its global population resident in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Only 38 percent of the global Palestinian population lives in the OPT, including East Jerusalem. It did not do so under a banner for a single or two-state solution because it did not seek to supplant the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which is the “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” To be relevant to all sectors of Palestinian society, it adopted a rights-based approach.
Due to its insistence on rights, anti-racism principles, and non-violent approach, the BDS movement has moved from the margins of political discourse to its center in less than ten years. At this critical juncture, insisting that the movement narrowly target settlements, and not the legal systems that subjugate a holistic Palestinian national body is both misguided and indicates a position of privilege.
First, it assumes that Israel’s policies in the OPT are severable from its policies within the non-declared and ever-expanding borders of the Israeli state. This is faulty for two reasons: 1) Israel’s settlement regime in the OPT is inextricable from the state’s economic, military, and political system; and 2) Israel seeks to diminish, concentrate, and displace Palestinians under their jurisdiction regardless of their status as citizens of the state, residents of Jerusalem, or civilians under occupation. In other words, Israel’s discriminatory treatment towards Palestinians is not geographically restricted. So what sense does it make for Palestinians to make demands that are territorially truncated and insufficient to redress their subjugated condition?
Additionally, insisting that BDS demands forego the holistic state of the Palestinian national body and narrowly target the occupation displaces Palestinian agency. BDS reflects solidarity with Palestinians as a nation enduring settler-colonialism and apartheid. Therefore, boycott could be married to a two-state solution but only if Palestinians decide that doing so is in their best interest. Even if they did, Palestinians would still insist on achieving meaningful equality and the right to return as well. The rights-based approach insists that any political solution be built on, and be compatible with, a human rights framework.
While the BDS movement lacks the capacity to determine a political outcome it has the capacity to resist the status quo, and most importantly, to articulate a comprehensive Palestinian narrative of displacement and dispossession. In doing so, it puts into question the legitimacy of Israel’s unjust order as a whole and not just the segment of it within the OPT. Matt Duss thinks the question of legitimacy is a distraction from the more fundamental issues of occupation and settlements; that is true only to the extent that Palestinian refugees and Israeli citizens do not exist. The BDS movement has vividly reminded the world that they do exist and that their well-being cannot be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency.
Legitimate vs. Illegitimate BDS (Hussein Ibish)
For boycott campaigns to be effective tools of leverage to challenge the occupation and push Israel towards peace, several key elements are essential.
1) Such boycotts must be squarely rooted in international law and the international consensus in favor of two states. In other words, they must stand in opposition to Israel`s illegitimate occupation, but not target the legitimate State of Israel, which is a member state of the United Nations. Otherwise they will fail to leverage the international law and consensus, and find themselves operating in a global political fringe divorced from real diplomacy and achievable goals.
2) Boycott campaigns must be coherent and aim at a common, unified goal. If the point of the boycotts is to end the occupation, they can be part of a large palette of approaches that converge to realize the almost universally agreed-upon outcome of a two-state solution, that is also firmly rooted in every aspect of international law. If, however, they target Israel as a whole, rather than the occupation, the stated or implicit aim will be understood as a one-state agenda that seeks to eliminate Israel. No boycott movement can be effective without a coherent, united aim.
3) At present, there are two kinds of "BDS": the really-existing one, currently led by European governments, that actually withhold benefits from Israel and threatened to intensify its international isolation, and the aspirational rhetoric articulated by online activists. The first is strictly targeted against the occupation, is based in international law, and seeks to help realize the two-state solution. The second, by any definition, has far broader aims and virtually no existence in reality: there is virtually no constituency for such boycotts and, beyond individuals, almost no examples of them, in the West.
4) This division allows supporters of the occupation, and even some ordinary Israelis, to either cynically argue or actually believe that European boycotts against settlement funding and products are actually "anti-Israel" boycotts rather than pro-peace measures. The rhetoric of more strident self-appointed "BDS" activists, who have been almost entirely unsuccessful in arranging for boycotts aimed at Israel in general rather than focusing on the occupation, has greatly undermined the highly laudable and otherwise very promising European initiative to end cooperation with the settlement project by making it appear to be "anti-Israel," when it is no such thing.
5) Any pro-Palestinian boycott campaign must be linked to the strategies and tactics of a broader national leadership. The Palestine Liberation Organization, through its Chairman, President Mahmoud Abbas, has expressed strong support for settlement boycotts, which are also part of Palestinian Authority law. But it has opposed generalized boycotts against Israel since they are practically impossible for Palestinians living under occupation, and are counterproductive because the Palestinian national movement remains committed to ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
6) The present boycott momentum is led by European governments, but it helps Palestinians—and the United States—gain leverage with Israel. The more integrated it is with the Palestinian national movement, and a broader global strategy, the better. The same applies even more to local and nongovernmental boycott campaigns: in order to maximize their effectiveness they must seek to work in harmony with a broader Palestinian national strategy, and those of other forces working towards ending the occupation and creating an independent Palestinian state. Otherwise any momentum created by their efforts will be politically and diplomatically fruitless, except perhaps at the level of public education and awareness. But to help promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians there must be a real relationship between the Palestinian leadership and its approach to national liberation, and any serious boycott campaign. Otherwise they might be or seem anti-Israel, but they will certainly not, in any meaningful sense, be pro-Palestinian.
Therefore the current European Union and governmental approach is the correct one: a refusal to cooperate with the settlements and the occupation, in order to divide Israelis rather than unite them behind the settlement movement. The biggest danger of boycott campaigns that target Israel in general is that they reinforce the settler argument that there is no distinction between the legitimate, internationally-recognized State of Israel on the one hand and the illegitimate, internationally-opposed occupation and, especially, illegal settlement activities. As long as Israelis feel, or can be made to believe, that their future is inextricably tied to that of the settlements, peace will be highly elusive. And the more Israelis understand that the occupation and the settlements are a burden they cannot shoulder any longer, the more quickly a conflict-ending agreement can be secured.
BDS: Neither Responsible Nor Progressive (Brent Sasley)
Israel’s control over the Gaza Strip and its occupation of the West Bank are well-entrenched by now. The only way to dislodge Israel from these areas is through the use of disincentives as well as incentives, and these will have to come from internal and external sources.
The BDS campaign is the most prominent form of outside pressure, and has seeped into the public consciousness. In light of this, Matt Duss has asked what a responsible, progressive position on boycotting Israel might be. My own position is that BDS is neither responsible nor progressive.
The aims of BDS are completely at odds with the two state solution, which is the only fair and viable solution to the conflict, while its tactics can never fully succeed because they are harnessed to a fantastical goal.
BDS’s ultimate goal is at best ambiguous, at worst disingenuous. The first of its three specific objectives calls for “Ending [Israel’s] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall.” All Arab lands is vague and, based on the writings and interviews of BDS proponents and leaders, seems to include the State of Israel itself in addition to the West Bank and Gaza.
The second objective calls for “Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.” Discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel is deeply-rooted and requires immediate rectification, but it is tied to a myriad of other social divisions and Israel’s continuing struggle to define its own identity. BDS certainly isn’t the appropriate vehicle for dealing with these internal issues. And by conflating its first and second objectives, BDS obscures the differences in these two problems.
The third objective is the thorniest: “Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.” But because 194 “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date,” it and BDS are both incompatible with the existence of Israel as a Jewish state with an Arab minority. That is, with the existence of a state that affords a particular people (Jews) self-determination while trying to maintain the individual rights and communal autonomy of its ethno-national minority.
History and precedent have overtaken 194 as the only option for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The international legal and normative structures in place since 1945 underline the illegitimacy and illegality of external parties destroying the independence of an existing state unless the people of that state choose, by violence (Yugoslavia) or negotiation (Czechoslovakia), to do it themselves. Israel was given international legal recognition by the 1947 UN Partition Plan (indeed, so was an independent Arab state) and then by membership in the General Assembly in 1949. The latter was accepted without the need to address 194 first. It is now a matter for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
Unless Israeli citizens rise up to demand the end of Israel (they aren’t), it is not for third parties to take over their priorities. Such external destruction is particularly problematic when a territory already exists that provides for Palestinian self-determination (the West Bank-Gaza). There are precedents for pieces of occupied land being broken off against the will of the occupying state: think of Kosovo or East Timor. In both cases, the state itself (Serbia, Indonesia) remained intact.
A global grassroots campaign against the occupation is needed. But it will be immoral if it doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. Tactically, it will be more effective if groups work to persuade their own national governments to pressure Israel on the diplomatic front alongside pressure on the Palestinian leadership, with economic penalties focused on the occupation itself. The BDS campaign is too broad to accommodate these realities.
Matthew Duss is a foreign policy analyst and a contributing writer for the Prospect.
Lisa Goldman is director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative at the New America Foundation`s National Security Studies Program.
Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney and writer. She is currently a Freedman Teaching Fellow at Temple Law School and a Jadaliyya Co-Editor. Click here to read her full bio.
Hussein Ibish is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.
Brent E. Sasley is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow him on Twitter.