Did someone say “boycott?”
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In fact, everyone seems to be saying it nowadays. Dutch and Scandinavian financial institutions are said to be boycotting or blacklisting Israel, or at least some Israeli companies. Bloomberg News asserted that SodaStream stock suddenly fell this week over boycott worries. Finance Minister Yair Lapid has warned that growing boycott sentiment in Europe could cause the Israeli economy to “falter” and every Israeli citizen to “feel the pain directly.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some cabinet ministers went on a rampage against U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for allegedly supporting a boycott. The government was supposed to call a meeting dedicated to the impending boycott threat. The media are filled with reports of other European institutions weighing blacklisting Israel.
But what is really occurring in a heavy dose of journalistic laziness together with headline-grabbing by a boycott, divestment and sanctions movement happy (or, perhaps, desperate) to piggyback on some free publicity. Politicians on the left are gleefully exploiting the so-called boycott because it’s a useful tool to further their goal of advancing the negotiations with the Palestinians. Those on the right are just as happy to cry boycott because it provides more evidence that the world is determined to wipe Israel off the map. What Voltaire said about God could just as easily apply to the boycott of Israel – If it did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it, which is what is happening.
The left and the right each has its respective myth that plays into the boycott hysteria. The former imagines there is some kind of “international community” that is appalled, truly appalled, by Israel’s settlements and by its treatment of the Palestinians. The boycotts are an expression of this highly moral community acting for justice and freedom. Israel should cower in shame, evacuate the settlements and clear the way for a Palestinian state, lest it be doomed. The right engages in paranoid fantasies of a world filled with anti-Semites, hell-bent on destroying Israel. The boycott is simply another tool these Israel-haters employ in their hate-filled campaign. Israel’s only answer is to resist, lest it be doomed.
The Israel boycott movement is actually two separate streams.
The first is the ad hoc boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, which contains enough elements of both myths to bring joy to true believers on the left and the right: It wears the mantle of global justice, while many of its most fervent supporters would have trouble passing an anti-Semitism smell test. But what does the BDS movement have to show for itself after close to a decade of activity? Not much: A collection of mostly symbolic boycotts by academic and student groups, a cooperative grocery here or there that won’t carry Israeli products and some noisy demonstrations in the rare places where they can find an outpost of Israeli business, such as Ahava cosmetics stores.
The second boycott stream is being pursued in a very lackadaisical manner in government and business circles, mostly in Europe. To call this an anti-Israel boycott or to portray it as a gathering storm is at complete variance with the facts. Let’s look at a few of the recent cases:
Danske Bank: According to various media reports, Denmark’s biggest bank has “boycotted” or “blacklisted” Israel’s Bank Hapoalim, implying that this is a new development. Another news outlet said Danske had “terminated all joint operations” with Hapolaim. In fact, the bank made its decision in the first half of last year and announced it in September. The “boycott” only applies to funds Danske invests on behalf of its clients, who can opt out if they choose. The bank itself continues to do business with Hapoalim. All in all, Danske has five Israeli companies on its “excluded,” list equal to far less than 1% of all the companies listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and overseas.
Nordea: Sweden’s biggest bank is reported to have “followed the Danish Bank” and “taken steps” against Israeli banks. It has “demanded” that Bank Leumi and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank make public their operations in the West Bank. In fact, all Nordea is doing for now is asking the banks for clarifications about their West Bank activities over the next few months before it decides what to do. No other Israeli business are on the list. “We have no other Israeli names on the list and our intention is not, by any means, to boycott either Israel or Israeli companies,” says Sasja Beslik, the head of responsible investments and identity at Nordea.
PGGM: The Dutch pension fund’s decision to sell shares in five Israeli banks is what set off the boycott hysteria. But far from trying to boycott Israel or delegitimize it, as the boycott industry likes to portray it, the PGGM FAQ page goes out of its way to say over and over that its goals are very narrowly defined as “responsible investing” in companies that do not violate its standards for human rights, the environment and corruption. “This is not a boycott of Israel” nor a political decision. In fact, the fund says it still has 100 million euros in assets invested in Israeli companies.
Government Pension Fund Global: Depending on where you stand, you should be moved to panic or glee when the Financial Times reports that “Norway’s sovereign wealth fund joins exodus from Israel.” But the fine print can only be a disappointment. The fund was only renewing a ban on investing in two companies, which are for all intents and purposes one company, namely Africa Israel Investments and its Danya Cebus subsidiary. The two were originally banned in 2010 and again in 2013. All told the fund has four Israeli companies on its excluded list – Elbit Systems, which was added in 2009, and Housing & Construction Limited, which was added three years later. Some exodus.
SodaStream: It’s a pity Scarlett Johannsen can’t collect a fee from the BDS movement after all her inadvertent marketing for them. But for all the brouhaha around her endorsing the company’s fizzy-drink devices, there is no evidence that anybody who wasn’t already boycotting the company for operating a plant in the West Bank has started to now.
In a case study of the nonsense being reported by the boycott, Bloomberg News said February 3 that SodaStream stock “drops amid sanctions over Jewish settlements.” The BDS-loving website Mondoweiss cited the report as evidence that “finally, people are listening” and “there’s been a massive shift in the discourse,” as if the stock market on that particular Monday acquired a conscience. But, anyone who is following SodaStream knows that the shares plunged on an earnings warning two weeks earlier and on the day of the Bloomberg report Wall Street suffered a big sell-off. In any case, if investors were now suddenly outraged over SodaStream’s West Bank connection, they quickly calmed down. The next day the shares rose 2.6%.