If BDS Isn’t a Real Threat, Why Does Netanyahu Make It Out to Be Such a Big Deal?

Netanyahu has his own reasons for legitimizing the movement, and it has nothing to do with the success or failure of BDS.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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A pro-BDS student at an Open Hillel Conference.
A pro-BDS student at an Open Hillel Conference.Credit: Gili Getz
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Benjamin Netanyahu must be a huge fan of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. He must be, because otherwise it’s hard to explain why the prime minister keeps handing it victories.

Speaking at the start of the cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu spoke of a “great struggle.”

“We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the State of Israel, an international campaign to blacken its name,” he said, before drawing a direct line between the movement to boycott Israel over the occupation and anti-Semitic blood libels of yore.

Ironically enough, just last week Netanyahu gave the BDS movement the gift of a lifetime, adding on to all those he has given anti-Zionist activists in recent years.

The list is long: his resistance to the two-state solution, anti-democratic legislation like the nation-state bill (that basically takes the “democratic” out of “Jewish democratic state”), and outbursts like his “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves” quip on Election Day. There was also last summer’s destructive war in Gaza, and his alienation of most of Israel’s friends around the world.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigns in the southern city of Ashkelon on election day, March 2015.Credit: Reuters

But now Netanyahu has handed BDS a massive achievement (albeit a rather symbolic one): a minister in charge of fighting it.

Following weeks of intraparty power struggles, fellow Likudnik Gilad Erdan was sworn in as minister of public security, strategic affairs and information. He was also put in charge of the struggle against the BDS movement and other “anti-Israel” activities, a position that has never existed and was made up especially for him.

“I am fully aware of the danger lurking in anti-Israel activities that include attempts to boycott and delegitimize Israel (BDS),” Erdan wrote in a Facebook post in which he announced his decision to join Netanyahu’s government.

“As part of my job, I will battle anti-Israel activities in the international arena such as attempts to attack us in the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and attempts by Palestinians to have us expelled from FIFA . These are urgent issues; it would be hard to exaggerate their importance.”

Follow the money

It’s still unclear how big the budget to fight BDS will be, or how it will fit with Erdan’s other responsibilities (as public security minister he’s in charge of the police, prisons and emergency services; as strategic affairs minister he’s in charge of nothing because it’s a barely budgeted ministry with no real authority).

Most likely, the BDS job won’t amount to much. But even if it’s just a designation, that designation has meaning. Israel already has a similar unit at the Foreign Ministry, but it’s a one-person department with little money. Appointing a minister to fight BDS is a formal declaration that BDS is a threat to Israel, a threat big enough to warrant a significant budget.

And with that, the right wing has once again proved that it’s the best friend of the spurious BDS movement.

There’s only one word for describing the message Israeli officials and media outlets have been conveying in the last few days: panic. The front page of Yedioth Ahronoth, the country’s second most popular newspaper, has described BDS this week as a “threat to Israel’s very existence.”

The panic was prompted at least in part by the Palestinians' bid to get Israel suspended from FIFA. This failed attempt was apparently close enough to make Israeli leaders’ panic levels jump.

Whether it’s Netanyahu talking about a “great struggle,” or President Reuven Rivlin calling the fledgling academic boycott of Israel a “strategic threat of the first degree,” or Israeli officials warning of a “diplomatic intifada,” the message is loud and clear: It’s a BDS world.

Is the panic justified? No. The BDS movement, born nearly 10 years ago, can hardly be called a significant threat.

Economically, it has had zero effect so far on Israel’s economy (no, SodaStream doesn’t count). Politically, it has scarcely lived up to its goal to effect change in Israeli politics by ramping up the economic pressure. Even on its home turf, university campuses, BDS has been far less successful than it purports to be.

This of course begs a couple of questions. Given BDS’ scant successes, why would Israeli officials go out of their way to acknowledge and legitimize a movement that Israel has every interest to play down? Why has the government gone so far as to appoint an anti-BDS minister?

Bibi buoys BDS

The fact that BDS hasn’t yet succeeded doesn’t mean it won’t develop into a legitimate threat in the future. And it just so happens that the movement has a great ally in Israel to help it along: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu speaks often about international attempts to boycott Israel; he mentions them in the same breath as real enemies like Iran or Hamas. In a speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in March 2014, Netanyahu said BDS no fewer than 17 times.

His right-wing cohorts, initiators of “Anti-Boycott Law” that lets individuals or the state file damage suits against any person or entity that calls for a boycott of Israel (or “areas under its control”), have followed suit and frequently warned about BDS. And every time they do so, they are lending credibility to the movement.

BDS activists, in turn, seem appreciative of everything Netanyahu has done for them. “We’ve got to give credit to Netanyahu. “Without him we could not have reached this far, at this time,” leading BDS activist Omar Barghouti said about Netanyahu earlier this year. “It could have taken much, much, much, much longer, but with the help of the Israeli government, our biggest closet supporters in the world, we’re going much faster.”

By aggrandizing it over and over, Netanyahu and the right wing are helping to stoke the movement’s credibility — and their own.

With Erdan’s appointment, for example, Netanyahu has given BDS the gift of a lifetime. True, he had a number of reasons to do it — mainly the need to appease Erdan, a potential rival to lead Likud who wanted to be foreign minister.

Yet the need to show he’s being proactive in the fight against boycott attempts isn't just a function of intraparty politics. Drumming up the BDS threat and baiting anti-Israel activists, Netanyahu is positioning himself for a fight he thinks he can easily win.

At the start of his third term as prime minister, Netanyahu doesn’t have much going for him. He has lost his crusade over Iran, done very little to solve the housing crisis, and seen his new government become the butt of jokes worldwide.

But by drumming up something as inconsequential as BDS has been, Netanyahu can present himself as a savior against an enemy he can appear to be beating.

Being one of the savviest politicians Israel has ever known, Netanyahu and the right wing know that talking about BDS as a credible threat makes BDS appear to be a credible threat. But Netanyahu really needs a win right now, so he needs to build up a formidable foe.

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