Divestment Diversion: Boycotting Israel Will Not Foster Peace

Article excerpt

FORMER PRESIDENT Jimmy Carter's blockbuster book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid introduced the South Africa analogy into the discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not surprisingly, the comparison proved controversial. Even the generally balanced Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen angrily asserted, "the Israel of today and the South Africa of yesterday have almost nothing in common."

But both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have raised the specter of Israel becoming like South Africa if it does not end the occupation of the West Bank. So if the analogy holds, a logical question follows: might the international campaign against white rule in South Africa constitute a viable model for the struggle against Israel's occupation of Palestine?

Many believe that it does. Indeed, the Palestinian Civil Society manifesto that launched the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement takes its inspiration from "the struggle of South Africans against apartheid." The 1949 Arab League boycott of Israel was the forerunner of the modern BDS movement, but given its failure to achieve any of its objectives, BDS proponents are keen to find a different historical anchor. The Third World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in September 2001 is regarded as the turning point for BDS because it linked the two movements.

In the context of the apparent failure of violent struggle in the second Intifada, 170 Palestinian civil-society groups met in July 2005 to call for a global campaign to end the occupation, elevate the second-class status of Arab citizens of Israel, and promote the right of return of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. A BDS National Committee was established at a conference in Ramallah in November 2007. Founding member Omar Barghouti attributes the movement's "momentous victories of late" to international outrage over Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon and the 2008/9 Gaza wars.

BDS offers a neat solution to the two major obstacles to ending the Israel-Palestine conflict: the continuing use of violence against the Jewish state by some Palestinian factions and the domestic political gridlock in Israel that gives the minority committed to Greater Israel disproportionate influence on policy. Because it is a nonviolent form of resistance, it allows the Palestinians to reclaim the moral high ground.

The flip side, as Middle East peace activist Henry Siegman reminds us, is that since "no country is as obsessed with the issue of its own legitimacy as Israel," BDS particularly stings most Israelis, who consider their country to be part of the "civilized world." Two academic supporters write, "The BDS strategy is designed not only to promote economic consequences for Israel's economy, but also, and often deemed more importantly, to disrupt hegemonic discourse that Israel is a progressive state."

The effort has touched a nerve in some quarters. The Ruet Institute, a Tel Aviv-based policy advisory organization, warns that BDS represents "a systemic, systematic, and increasingly effective assault on [Israel's] political and economic model." In this view, "the hearts and minds of the elites--individuals with influence, leadership, or authority--represent the battleground between Israel and its foes," and BDS efforts therefore constitute an "existential threat" to the Jewish state.

But not all Israelis regard the movement as a negative development. A few remaining leftists like New Historian and human rights activist Ilan Pappe endorse it. Yet this position remains marginal and precarious, as Ben Gurion University political scientist Neve Gordon discovered last August when he wrote in the Los Angeles Times that a boycott "is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself" and subsequently came under withering criticism from the president of his university, among other high-profile supporters of Israel.

Two other aspects of the BDS movement make it attractive to critics of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. …

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