The Power and Weakness of Boycott

Recently, Norway announced that a major Israeli company and a subsidiary were to be excluded from its national wealth fund’s investment list. The reasons were past activity in building settlements in the West Bank and working on construction of the Separation Barrier.

Tel Aviv protest against the new cultural center built in Ariel settlement

Before I go into what this means for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), let me say I applaud this action. Continued development of industry in the settlements only entrenches their presence. It is crucial that foreign governments and corporations stop supporting that development and make it clear that settlement industries cannot expect “business as usual” and, most importantly, that those companies are not in Israel. That is a line that must be drawn clearly, in the boldest green. The message must be sent in no uncertain terms that the settlements are NOT ISRAEL!

Predictably, supporters of the BDS movement have been declaring how this incident proves their strategy is working, that their “movement” is making real progress. But that is really overstating the case.

This is, indeed, a victory for the BDS movement, but not nearly the one they will, understandably, purport. The two companies are part of the corporate group owned by billionaire Lev Leviev, who actively promotes settlement expansion. Leviev has been targeted by BDS activists spanning the spectrum from anti-occupation groups to anti-Israel ones for years.

European companies have, for years, divested from Israeli companies seen as doing the business of settlement or occupation expansion. This has been, and remains, a limited trend, but some European companies will stop doing business with Israeli businesses when involvement with the settlements or occupation is brought to their attention (it often requires some investigation to find these things out). So, yes, this is the sort of thing activist groups can do, though it happened with less frequency before the BDS movement really rose up.

Still, this was certainly caused by the BDS activities. And they can rightly take credit for it.

But the larger impact that is being felt in the settlements is not the result of this movement’s efforts. It’s the result of the Palestinian Authority doing what it should have done a long time ago—cut itself off as a market for settlement products.

The PA boycott of settlement products has been very meticulous. They have specified which products are made in settlements so that the boycott does not affect Israeli businesses located inside the Green Line. They have acted to stop Palestinians from working in the settlements as well. This is what is hurting the settlement businesses that, perversely, do a very large amount of business by selling to Palestinians.

Two factors have allowed this tactic to succeed and to resonate well in Europe. The Palestinians have effectively communicated their goals and strategy behind this boycott in Europe, where they tend to be heard far better than in the United States.

But the major factor is that the PA, and specifically Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, has gotten the point across clearly that this boycott is aimed at the settlements and not at Israel. Europe is not going to boycott Israel, for many reasons. But there is a lot less tolerance in Europe for the settlements than there is in the US, and a good opportunity to strike at the settlement project alone is likely to win at least some European support.

The BDS movement is diverse and different people and groups in it have a wide variety of views on many issues. But, despite the fact that not all of the groups who engage in BDS activism hold to these views, the movement as a whole has become associated with one-state ideologies and support for the Palestinian Right of Return, two points that fall well outside the international diplomatic consensus and are non-starters for most of Europe’s elites.

This is why the Netanyahu government is able to twist a legitimate protest tactic into an attack on Israel’s very existence—because it is being employed by some who do indeed believe that the root of the problem in the Middle East is Israel’s very existence.

Economic actions like boycotts and divestment are legitimate and time-honored non-violent tactics to express protest and to try to take concrete action against policies people believe are wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with employing such economic action against the occupation and the siege of Gaza. The test of such tactics is whether or not enough people will come to agree that the policy in question is wrong; if they do, the tactic will be effective, otherwise it will not.

Unfortunately, a targeted program of economic action was not pursued by those who realize that the problem is the settlements, and that peace with two states, one of which is a Jewish Israel, is possible. The tactic was taken up by one-staters who believe the only way to address the historic, and massive, injustice done to the Palestinians is by promoting a single state where Jews lose their political self-determination and quickly become a minority in the area in question.

Now, it’s harder to take up the tactic, despite the fact that, from talking to many two-staters, both activists and politicians, I know that many such folks now realize that a well-orchestrated campaign targeting the settlements could very well be effective.

The PA, however, has proven it can be done. And a handful of artists and performers in Israel have also given us an opportunity to pursue an effective campaign against the settlements. A pro-Israel, pro-peace boycott campaign has the potential not only to really affect the status quo but also to bring back many Jews who feel less and less affinity to an Israel whose identity is increasingly being radicalized by the settler movement.

Thus far, Diaspora Jewish peace groups have been largely silent on this issue. That’s understandable, because there will be considerable political fallout from it. But this is a real opportunity to back and Israeli initiative, brought by ordinary Israelis not career leftists or radicals. This is a chance to back an Israeli initiative that clearly targets the settlements from within Israel.

It would be a shame if Israeli and American peace groups let this chance go by. They screwed up once by leaving a powerful tactic in the hands of those who cannot possibly use it to maximum effect. One hopes they don’t make the same mistake again.