Boycotting Israel strikes fear in heart of liberal Zionism

Today’s Haaretz editorial displays the reality of Israel’s situation; an illusion of stability amidst growing international criticism of its apartheid against the Palestinians:

Concern over a possible international economic boycott of Israel has been growing. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is responsible for negotiations with the Palestinians. At the beginning of the month she warned that if there was no progress in diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, the European boycott of Israeli products would not be limited to goods produced in West Bank settlements, but that it would be applied to Israel proper as well.

At a speech in Eilat, Livni said that when it comes to economic issues, the discourse in Europe had also taken on an ideological turn, spawning increasing calls for a boycott of Israel. “It’s true,” she stated, “that it will begin with the settlements. But their problem is with Israel, which is perceived as a colonialist country, so it won’t stop with the settlements and will reach all of Israel.”

In Friday’s Haaretz, Yossi Verter reported that the relevant government ministries had recently received disturbing news. Major banks in Europe with operations around the world have been exploring the possibility of barring loans to Israeli companies that have a business or economic link with the occupied territories. According to the information received, these banks’ investment committees have been considering recommending barring their institutions from providing loans, or any other assistance, to Israeli companies that manufacture, build or conduct commerce in the territories, or to banks that provide mortgage lending or loans to builders or buyers of housing in the territories.

Although the recommendations have been rejected for the time being − after an Israeli lobbying campaign that came against the backdrop of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic initiative in the region − the proposal will continue to hover over Israel.

The magnitude of the danger this poses to the Israeli economy is hard to overstate. A European economic boycott of those with any connection to the occupied territories would be very broad. And Livni is warning that it would spread way beyond that. Even at this point, the worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) has chalked up a not-inconsiderable number of achievements.

As a result, Israel is facing its moment of truth. Is it prepared to pay a steep economic price for its continued occupation of the West Bank and for its diplomatic inaction? Is it ready to pay the price of the government’s refusal to work for the establishment of a Palestinian state, to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed back in 2009, with the economic implications that such a boycott entails?

The need for new, courageous and steadfast policy does not stem solely from the threatened economic damage. The diplomatic and moral price that Israel is paying for the continued occupation is high enough, but now − with Europe talking about stiffening its economic stance − the price that Israel is due to pay becomes substantial and tangible. Israel has only one conclusion to draw from this: To exercise a genuine readiness to end the occupation and reach an agreement, before this major threat becomes a reality.

UPDATE: Haaretz writer Gideon Levy today also calls for a boycott of his country:

Anyone who really fears for the future of the country needs to be in favor at this point of boycotting it economically.

A contradiction in terms? We have considered the alternatives. A boycott is the least of all evils, and it could produce historic benefits. It is the least violent of the options and the one least likely to result in bloodshed. It would be painful like the others, but the others would be worse.

On the assumption that the current status quo cannot continue forever, it is the most reasonable option to convince Israel to change. Its effectiveness has already been proven. More and more Israelis have become concerned recently about the threat of the boycott. When Justice Minister Tzipi Livni warns about it spreading and calls as a result for the diplomatic deadlock to be broken, she provides proof of the need for a boycott. She and others are therefore joining the boycott, divestment and sanction movement. Welcome to the club.

The change won’t come from within. That has been clear for a long time. As long as Israelis don’t pay a price for the occupation, or at least don’t make the connection between cause and effect, they have no incentive to bring it to an end. And why should the average resident of Tel Aviv be bothered by what is happening in the West Bank city of Jenin or Rafah in the Gaza Strip? Those places are far away and not particularly interesting. As long as the arrogance and self-victimization continue among the Chosen People, the most chosen in the world, always the only victim, the world’s explicit stance won’t change a thing.

It’s anti-Semitism, we say. The whole world’s against us and we are not the ones responsible for its attitude toward us. And besides that, despite everything, the English singer Cliff Richard came to perform here. Most Israeli public opinion is divorced from reality − the reality in the territories and abroad. And there are those who are seeing to it that this dangerous disconnect is maintained. Along with the dehumanization and demonization of the Palestinians and the Arabs, people here are too brainwashed with nationalism to come to their senses.

Change will only come from the outside. No one − this writer included, of course − wants another cycle of bloodshed. A non-violent popular Palestinian uprising is one option, but it is doubtful that will happen anytime soon. And then there’s American diplomatic pressure and the European economic boycott. But the United States won’t apply pressure. If the Obama administration hasn’t done it, no American administration will. And then there’s Europe. Justice Minister Livni said that the discourse in Europe has become ideological. She knows what she’s talking about. She also said that a European boycott would not stop at products made in West Bank settlements.

There’s no reason it should. The distinction between products from the occupation and Israeli products is an artificial creation. It’s not the settlers who are the primary culprits but rather those who cultivate their existence. All of Israel is immersed in the settlement enterprise, so all of Israel must take responsibility for it and pay the price for it. There is no one unaffected by the occupation, including those who fancy looking the other way and steering clear of it. We are all settlers.

Economic boycott was proven effective in South Africa. When the apartheid regime’s business community approached the country’s leadership saying that the prevailing circumstances could not continue, the die was cast. The uprising, the stature of leaders like Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk, the boycott of South African sports and the country’s diplomatic isolation also contributed of course to the fall of the odious regime. But the tone was set by the business community.

And it can happen here too. Israel’s economy will not withstand a boycott. It is true that at the beginning it will enhance the sense of victimhood, isolationism and nationalism, but not in the long run. It could result in a major change in attitude. When the business community approaches the government, the government will listen and also perhaps act. When the damage is to every citizen’s pocketbook, more Israelis will ask themselves, maybe for the first time, what it’s all about and why it’s happening.

It’s difficult and painful, almost impossibly so, for an Israeli who has lived his whole life here, who has not boycotted it, who has never considered emigrating and feels connected to this country with all his being, to call for such a boycott. I have never done so. I have understood what motivated the boycott and was able to provide justification for such motives. But I never preached for others to take such a step. However, with Israel getting itself into another round of deep stalemate, both diplomatic and ideological, the call for a boycott is required as the last refuge of a patriot.

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