The Jewish and Israeli worlds – and to some degree the America political world – are being roused to battle by a growing campaign highlighting the evils and dangers of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel). It is being termed the greatest danger since Hitler, one that threatens Israel with over $10 billion in losses a year (with a lot of questionable assumptions). While at the moment, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the US right wing are issuing ever more dire warnings about the purported dangers of the seemingly imminent Iran nuclear deal, they undoubtedly recognize that they have probably lost that fight, so BDS will clearly be the next big push.
Push for what? Why, to distract attention from the ongoing Occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements. And it may be working, at least in certain quarters. It seems to be part of a larger strategy of delegitimization; not of Israel, as is being widely claimed, but, rather, of those, especially Jews, who oppose the Israeli rightwing and who are trying to stop it leading Israel towards isolation and disaster.
Necessary Disclaimer: There is no doubt that the Middle East in general, and Israel in particular, faces real and dangerous threats, some of which have been metastasizing to an alarming degree. A nuclear Iran, worldwide anti-semitism, the success of ISIS, the failure of Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Libya as states with no solution in sight; all of these are genuine crises, and some are causing far more immediate death and destruction in the short term. So why am I and others pushing for settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the face of all these? No one seriously believes that such a mutually-agreed on settlement will stop ISIS, Iran, or the Arab civil wars in their tracks.
There are several crucial reasons why the US government, Israel, the international community, and American Jews, as well as Palestinians, Arab states, and others should be focusing on this as a priority, from all their different vantage points. And, unfortunately, peaceful settlement of the conflict is opposed by powerful forces, including the American and Israeli right wings, ISIS, al Qaeda, and extremists around the world, from Islam and Judaism, left and right, and elsewhere. Of course, I am not alleging a conspiracy among these forces, which mostly loathe each other. But continuation of the status quo, which includes expanding and open-ended settlements, punctuated by increasingly horrific wars, has had and continues to have an extremely exacerbating effect on the region and the world.
Part of its danger is that it is as old as the modern Middle East. This conflict has been ongoing, in various forms, since before World War I as an inter-communal dispute, and since 1947 as a regional and international conflict. Every generation, it seems to change shape, and sometimes parties even change sides, to a degree that partisan rhetoric doesn’t keep up with it. For example, in 1947, Israel accepted a partition plan giving it 55% of historic Palestine (Eretz Yisrael) and went to war with the Arab world over it. In 2002, the Arab League unanimously offered Israel 78% of the land and full diplomatic relations in return for a Palestinian state on the remaining 22%, repeating and sweetening the offer several times. Israel has never fully responded.
More recently, Israel now finds itself in de facto alliance with the major Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States. This is because of their shared fear of two factors, both Islamic, namely Iran and ISIS. No one believes either of these are short-term dangers, nor is this simply a temporary alliance of convenience. All of these Arab states are conservative, status quo powers. They realize, correctly, that Israel has an equally large stake in the status quo, and shares many of their interests. The last thing they would want would be a new and unstable Palestinian state replacing Israel.
Nevertheless, except for Jordan and Egypt, Israel has no official government-to-government dealings with any Arab states, and their public relationships are frosty. Why? Solely because of the Palestinian issue. The Arab and Muslim worlds are so heavily invested in that issue that the governments cannot ‘normalize’ relations with Israel until there is a Palestinian state. Thus, the ongoing conflict is preventing Israeli integration into the region and preventing it from concluding strong regional alliances.
Domestically, it is equally toxic. The Occupation constitutes an objective threat to Israeli democracy. When a democratic state rules over a population as large as its own which has no vote and little say in its governance, it cannot be called a democracy any longer. It was one thing when the occupation seemed temporary. But after 48 years, and with Israel led by a government whose members range from total rejection of a Palestinian state to ‘not in the foreseeable future;” to call it temporary is to squeeze any meaning out of the word. The Occupation has poisoned Israeli politics internally, and led to increasing international isolation of the country. All of this in the name of ‘defense’. In fact, numerous studies have shown, as common sense does as well, that a demili¬tarized and poor Palestinian state cannot offer any credible threat to Israel or, if it teams up with others who do, Israel will be perfectly capable of defending itself. Most of us have learned that there are no absolute guarantees in life, for anything, but the odds here are immensely in Israel’s favor.
What about BDS and the ‘new anti-semitism’? Doesn’t this prove Israel is in genuine danger and that the world will always hate it?
In fact, it proves the opposite. The BDS phenomenon is being cynically used by the Israeli government and some American Jewish organizations as evidence that whatever it does, it will never be safe. The Occupation is irrelevant, they insist. BDS is Israel’s and the Jewish people’s real enemy, along with Iran, ISIS, and President Obama.
In fact, the vast majority of those who support BDS do so because they believe Israel has no business ruling over the West Bank and blockading Gaza, and that it has no intention of changing that situation in real time. Of course the leadership, those who purport to speak in the name of BDS, says differently. Many, if not most, make clear that they do not accept Israel’s existence, certainly not as a Jewish state. They proclaim that BDS supports a full right of return and other measures which would indeed change Israel into a majority-Arab country.
However, BDS is neither a state nor a Leninist party. Many of its supporters proclaim ad infinitum that they support Palestinian rights – not Israel’s destruction. I know a number of Jews who support Israel but who have concluded that the only way to end the Occupation is through BDS. I don’t agree with them, but they are not a danger to Israel.
However, BDS is increasingly being used as an excuse to purge the Jewish community and weed out of it those who recognize that the Occupation is the greatest single danger threatening Israel. The Occupation is the lynchpin of support for BDS and for much of the anti-semitism that is rearing its head around the world. Most Jews do identify with Israel, and it is far too easy for those who hate Israel to attack Jews, since Israel is a much tougher target. Yes, there is indeed growing anti-semitism, but most of it is related to Israel’s actions, not religious or ‘racial’ hatred of Jews.
Ending the Occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state will not change those whose hatred for Israel is existential. But this small minority swims in a sea which is filled with those whose beef with Israel is primarily the Occupation. Neither the leaders of BDS nor the leaders of Israel want to recognize this fact. For opposite reasons, both want to exaggerate the adherents and successes of the movement which have, for the most part, been few and far between.
Moreover, the most recent tactic is to surreptitiously attempt to blur the distinction between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Many people and institutions have chosen to boycott the settlements but not Israel proper. Anti-boycott legislation is being introduced now around the US that specifically includes “territory Israel controls” as effectively part of Israel proper. This is not only objectively false – Israel has never annexed the West Bank – but it is also in direct contradiction to 47 years of US government policy, which has steadfastly refused to recognize the West Bank as part of Israel. And anti-boycott legislation – not including the Occupied Territories – has been on the books for many years.
Thus, the only way to change this dangerous trajectory is to end the Occupation as quickly as possible. Some ideas for doing that are in articles and statements I have contributed to here and here. Many others are published daily.
As I’ve stressed, ending the Occupation is not a panacea. But only with that as a start can Israel return to the path of peace, democracy, regional integration, and worldwide acceptance.