Israel Pushes Back as Boycott Movement Grows

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a campaign to put political and economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian land, was started a little over ten years ago by a few Palestinian activists. It has now become a worldwide phenomenon, and while its economic impact is unknown, it poses a significant symbolic challenge to Israel’s image abroad. Having shrugged off the matter for the most of the past decade, Tel Aviv has begun to pay attention to the toll that the BDS movement is said to be taking on the country’s standing in the world. The Netanyahu government has taken an especially confrontational approach to BDS, but whatever the pushback, most commentators believe Israel will continue to face pressure so long as it maintains its occupation of Palestinian territories.

In a recent Jerusalem Post report, Tia Goldenberg points out that the success of the BDS movement is causing the Israeli government considerable concern “so much so that Israel has identified it as a strategic threat on a par with Palestinian militant groups and the Iranian nuclear program. While Israel says the movement is rooted in anti-Semitism, its decentralized organization and language calling for universal human rights have proven difficult to counter, resulting in a string of recent victories that have alarmed Israeli leaders….At a time when peace efforts are frozen and show no sign of getting back on track under a new hardline government, Israelis fear such sentiment will increase….A February report by Israel’s Finance Ministry concluded the BDS movement has had a negligible economic impact. But it outlined some worst-case scenarios, including EU government-led boycotts or cancellation of free-trade agreements.”

Given this pressure from various international state and non-state actors, the Israeli ambassador to the UN highlighted the importance of the Jewish Diaspora as a weapon against BDS. According to Arutz Sheva’s Yoni Kempinski, Ambassador Ron Prosor in particular praised those who have chosen to immigrate to Israel permanently: “Israel Ambassador the UN Ron Prosor addressed over 200 people choosing to immigrate to Israel on Monday, as they embarked from John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport for the first Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) charter flight for summer 2015….’You and I share a common mission,’ he began. ‘I and the team at the United Nations stand on the front lines every day, defending Israel from those who question Israel’s right to exist. You are the answer — each and every one of you,’ he added, to applause. ‘You are the answer to the BDS, you are the answer to anti-Semitism, and you are the answer to all those who question the only state, the Jewish state, the nation-state of the Jewish people.’”

In an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick expresses support for the Netanyahu government’s decision to take the BDS movement head on and confront a phenomenon that for Glick has reached a point of no return: “Over the years BDS activists’ assaults on Israel’s right to exist have become ever more shrill and radical. So, too, whereas just a few years ago their operations tended to be concentrated around military confrontations, today they are everyday occurrences. And their demands become greater and more openly anti-Semitic from week to week and day to day….Against this backdrop, statements and actions by the new Netanyahu government are encouraging because, unlike its predecessors, it seems to have stopped playing the fool….Netanyahu spoke out angrily and specifically against the BDS movement and warned that Israel must not blame itself for the BDS haters’ assaults against it….Netanyahu spoke out angrily and specifically against the BDS movement and warned that Israel must not blame itself for the BDS haters’ assaults against it.”

Others, like The National’s Faisal Al Yafai, who recognize Israel’s seeming ability to thrive amidst challenges, wonder whether the BDS movement hasn’t actually propped up the Israeli government rather than weaken it: “Israel is on a permanent war footing. It has fought more wars this century than any other country in the region — not because it has to, but because it needs to. Israel needs a war in Gaza. It needs a permanent threat, because without that, the political class has no real vision to offer its people….It also needs the occupation internationally. Only by constantly talking up threats — either Palestinian rockets or Iranian bombs or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — can Israeli politicians continue to leverage their supporters in America and Europe to raise money or gain political support. Constant threats are vital for the occupation to continue….Both at home and abroad, Israel needs the Palestinian conflict. If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.”

The question for many, though, is why BDS has gathered steam recently. That is a question that Ira Stup, former director of J Street U, the campus arm of the dovish lobby J Street, attempts to answer in an article for the Jewish daily Forward: “Sheldon Adelson’s recently convened conference to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is significant not because it defines a new era in the BDS conversation, but because it helps underline the reasons that the establishment Jewish community is losing the BDS debate….BDS resolutions, campaigners note, offer a nonviolent action that students can take to shift the conversation around Israel/Palestine and to create a ‘cost’ for the occupation. Its leaders point to what they believe to be their ample successes: SodaStream is closing its West Bank factory and Ahava, its flagship London outlet. The European Union is pursuing the labeling of settlement products. And the Jewish community is spending millions of dollars to combat BDS campaigns on campus….As long as being pro-Israel is synonymous with supporting occupation and offering empty platitudes about peace, the traditional pro-Israel community will continue to lose.” 

Finally, there are those who believe more can be done to put pressure on the Israeli government so that it may loosen its grip on the Palestinian people. That, at least, is the sentiment expressed by the Gulf News editorial staff, calling on the Gulf countries to support the BDS movement, something these countries have been very slow to do: “It is very telling when Israel labels the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a strategic threat to its interest, on par with the perceived threat from Iran. It means that after decades of conflict, the Palestine solidarity movement has successfully devised an effective method of resistance that does not require a single drop of blood to be shed….The growing boycott movement should also serve as a wakeup-call to Arab states that continue to engage with international companies complicit in Israel’s occupation that are slowly turning into pariahs in Europe and beyond….Arab states should not allow themselves to be left behind as the rest of the world advances in justice for the Palestinians. Boycott Israel. Institutionalize BDS in the Gulf.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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