Netanyahu Postpones Ministerial Forum on BDS Threat Over Bennett Row

Government was supposed to seriously discuss boycott for first time, after Dutch pension giant decides to divest from Israel’s banks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had planned to convene many of his ministers Wednesday for a meeting on the growing threat of boycotts and sanctions against Israel by Western governments and companies, but canceled the discussion at the last minute due to his ongoing crisis with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.

This was to have been the first time the government held in-depth discussion on the matter in an effort to develop strategies to counter boycotts.

The meeting was initially scheduled to begin at 10 A.M., but the Prime Minister's Bureau informed ministers just an hour before that it would be postponed to the afternoon. Shortly after, the bureau announced that it would only be held on Thursday morning.

This was going to be the first time Netanyahu and Bennett were to meeting since the tensions between them erupted on Sunday. A source in the Prime Minister's Office said that if Bennett does not apologize to Netanyahu, he would likely not be invited to the boycotting meeting, nor to many other government meetings. "It's impossible to trust Bennett, he always lets things slip," the source said.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the chief negotiator in the Middle East peace talks, posted a cynical response to the decision on her Facebook page.

Livni sarcastically suggested embarking on a global marketing campaign inspired by Bennett's pro-settlement views: "Imagine photos of hilltop youth engaged in various price-tag attacks," she wrote. "OK, maybe not price-tag attacks on convents and churches, because that would be unpleasant. The caption would read: 'Israel decided – sovereignty over everything.'"

Livni continued: "Another suggestion: This is not South Africa. Here, the Palestinians are not second-class citizens, they are simply not citizens at all…Or: We are always right, and when we said peace, we didn't really mean it. In short: I wish us all success."

A senior Israeli official said prior to the meeting that Netanyahu was moved to call a discussion after Dutch pension giant PGGM decided to divest from Israel’s five largest banks due to their involvement in financing companies and groups involved in settlement construction. A few weeks earlier, the Dutch water company Vitens canceled a contract with the Mekorot Water Company for similar reasons.

PGGM’s decision is considered particularly worrisome because the company is targeting not the settlements themselves but key players in the Israeli economy that are located within the Green Line – solely because they have indirect ties with West Bank settlements.

The meeting’s agenda sent to ministers by the National Security Council cites a long list of articles published in Haaretz in recent weeks about boycott initiatives against the settlements and/or Israeli companies directly or indirectly tied to the settlements. The ministers have been asked to come with proposals for how to cope with such initiatives.

The senior Israeli official said the boycott movement has two distinct strains. One involves sanctions by Western governments, especially in the European Union, which target the settlements specifically. The other involves sanctions by Western companies, which also target companies within the Green Line that maintain commercial ties with the settlements.

The escalation in sanctions initiatives by Western companies stems from both increased pressure by pro-Palestinian organizations and the fact that more and more governments, especially in Europe, are encouraging the private sector to refrain from business ties with companies or groups linked to the settlements.

Wednesday’s discussion was to have taken place against the backdrop of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to draft a “framework agreement” laying out principles for solving all the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The National Security Council, the Foreign Ministry and Military Intelligence all say that if Kerry’s initiative fails and Israeli-Palestinian talks break down, the campaign of boycotts, sanctions and delegitimization against Israel by both Western governments and the private sector will escalate sharply.

Participants in Wednesday’s meeting were include Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Education Minister Shay Piron, Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry, Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

The attorney general, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, the director general of the Foreign Ministry and representatives of the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service were also to have attended.

In recent weeks, fierce arguments have raged in the cabinet over the threat of boycotts, especially between Bennett and Livni. Bennett claims that Livni, by warning against the threat of boycotts, is actually causing more sanctions and boycotts to target Israel. Livni says Bennett and other right-wingers in the cabinet who support unlimited construction in the settlements and oppose the talks are the ones encouraging boycotts that will harm Israel’s economy.

Livni believes that to begin combating the threat of boycotts against Israel, Jerusalem must declare a complete construction freeze in settlements outside the recognized blocs that would remain part of Israel in any future agreement. At the same time, Israel must receive Kerry’s plan positively, Livni says.

Bennett says the boycott and sanctions are a real threat but that they are also grossly exaggerated. In a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies conference Tuesday, Bennett said that since its inception, Israel has faced international boycotts.

According to Bennett, the solution is allotting more resources to public diplomacy. “We need to take the budget of a flight squadron or tank brigade and divert it to the struggle against the delegitimization of Israel,” he said.

Olivier Fitoussi