Iceland's Capital Did Right to Drop the Israel Boycott, for the Wrong Reasons

By blinking and retracting its boycott against Israel, Reykjavik handed the Israeli right wing a rare propaganda coup.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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The pastoral city of Reykjavik, which did well to extract itself from the BDS-Isael mess, if for the wrong reasons.
The pastoral city of Reykjavik, which did well to extract itself from the BDS-Isael mess, if for the wrong reasons.Credit: Bloomberg
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Well, that was quick: after causing an international media frenzy (and angering its own government), Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, reversed the city council decision to boycott Israeli products “as long as the occupation of Palestinian territories continues”.

Instead, the city’s mayor said Reykjavik would only boycott products made in the settlements.

Reykjavik made the right decision. Sadly, it did so for all the wrong reasons.

Pointless bravado

From the get-go, Reykjavik’s decision to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement had no value beyond symbolic. Israel’s exports to Iceland are infinitesimal, running at about $4 million a year. Israeli exports to the United States ran at nearly $11 billion in 2014.

So financially, the boycott wouldn't have counted for much beyond an anecdote. Then again, all of BDS’s successes so far have been anecdotal publicity coups.

In choosing to retract its boycott of Israel, Reykjavik made the right decision. Collective punishment is wrong, whether it is aimed against Palestinians or Israelis. Worse, it is ineffective: In pushing to boycott of all Israelis, BDS has been as effective in ending the occupation of the West Bank as Israel is in its attempts to eradicate terrorism by punishing all Palestinians.

If anything, the boycott movement has probably helped to entrench the occupation.

In targeting the entirety of Israel’s population, anti-occupation activists and pro-occupation zealots alike, the movement merely further isolated those Israelis who are trying to fight the occupation from within, and who are already subject to hateful incitement. It has provided the right-wing with the perfect bogeyman, the ultimate proof the world is “against us” (because anti-Semitism) and therefore Israel’s needn’t change.

It’s not for nothing that BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti once famously credited Benjamin Netanyahu (who once mentioned BDS no less than 17 times in one speech) for BDS’s success: for years BDS and the ultra-nationalist right-wing have fed off of each other, using each other to gain support and expand their ranks.

Reykjavik was right to walk away from this mess. Sadly, though, it did it too late, and in a way that only served to strengthen the forces it wished to expunge.

Retraction born of fear

Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson (left) with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (July 2015)Credit: Reuters

Reykjavik’s decision last week to boycott Israeli products has angered many, in Israel and in Iceland itself. Although Iceland as a country is very critical of Israel, Iceland’s prime minister Sigmundur Daví Gunnlaugsson called the Reykjavik boycott “absurd”, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center urged Jews not to travel to Iceland. The boycott angered many Israelis too, though that was arguably the point of it.

Less than a week after it was announced, surprised by the uproar, Reykjavik mayor Dagur Eggertsson admitted he had “underestimated” the response to the motion. The motion was not not clear enough, he said, and would be amended to clarify that the boycott only applied to products made in settlements.

In other words, Reykjavik’s city councilors, upon seeing what they had done, evidently got scared and caved.

By retracting in response to the global furor, Reykjavik handed the Israeli right-wing a huge propaganda win. It gave Netanyahu, who desperately needed a diplomatic accomplishment following the Iran deal debacle, the coup he was praying for: both proof of the “anti-Semitic” plot against Israel, and a rare power display against Israel’s “enemies” abroad.

Admittedly, winning a partial victory against a small city in faraway Iceland is not much to celebrate, but these days, Israel’s government will take any small victory it can get.

The original decision to join the boycott against Israel, no doubt, came out of good intentions - a desire to take a stand against Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. The retraction, though born out of fear, was no doubt the result of good intentions as well. Yet Reykjavik achieved the opposite of its intentions: instead of assisting in the fight to end the occupation of the West Bank, it served the forces for whom the occupation is raison d’etre.

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