Analysis

Is Israel's anti-BDS Detention Policy Stupid, Evil – or Both?

The ongoing uproar over Lara Alqasem shows that the self-inflicted damage to Israel's good name is escalating exponentially – which suits Netanyahu just fine

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Lara Alqasem. Netanyahu’s cabinet has proven time and again that the expediency of local politics always takes precedence over Israel's international standing.
Ohad Zwigenberg / Amir Cohen, Reuters

In a 2002 column in The Washington Post, the late Charles Krauthammer wrote this famous delineation of the West’s two main ideological camps: “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.” Sixteen years later, however, in the days of Donald Trump, the lines have blurred: Conservatives and liberals increasingly view each other as being both stupid AND evil at the same time.

The question of dense vs. diabolical comes up in connection with the Israeli government’s policy of denying entry to boycott, divestment and sanctions activists and supporters, including those whose backing for BDS is limited to the occupation and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Given that the implementation of said policy tarnishes Israel’s already problematic profile and provides the BDS movement with more publicity than its leaders could ever dream of, one’s initial inclination is to surmise that Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers are mindless halfwits.

>> Opinion: This is the real game Israel is playing with the BDS movement. It's terrifying

The controversy surrounding University of Florida student Lara Alqasem, whose deportation was frozen by the Supreme Court on Sunday, is the latest case in point. Even if one stipulates that Alqasem was an advocate for BDS up until very recently, as the government claims, her current intention to study at the Hebrew University – in “occupied Jerusalem” yet – is the very antithesis of the movement’s goals. If the government had any sense it might consider holding Alqasem up as a poster girl for the impotence and decline of the boycott movement. But, at the very least, it should have allowed her to enter Israel without fanfare, thus saving itself a massive headache.

After all, nothing that the BDS movement itself has done since the government started to implement the 2017 law that forbids entry to its activists has delegitimized Israel more than the country's own policies. And in what seems like a concerted effort to double its trouble, the powers that be have strayed far beyond the supposed scope of the law, detaining and questioning not only hardcore leaders of the boycott movement but also people who have no connection to BDS and are often critical of its activities. 

In addition to minor BDS supporters and activists that hardly anyone heard of before they were cast as martyrs by Border Police and Shin Bet operatives at Ben-Gurion Airport, the list of detainees includes such prime suspects as Jewish philanthropist and Chair of the Board of Trustees of Brandeis University Meyer Koplow, renowned Atlantic columnist Peter Beinart and even totally-Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth journalist Itamar Eichner, who was recently detained and questioned before leaving Israel about a working visit to Jordan several months earlier. It’s as if someone at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which is responsible for the no-entry policy, deliberately composed a list of suspects who have no connections to BDS but whose detention would inflict the most damage on Israeli interests.

The government didn’t really need the critical New York Times column recently written by staunchly pro-Israel conservatives Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss to realize that its policy was backfiring, though the article should have driven home just how far and wide the fallout might reach. Netanyahu and others were told from the outset that their new detention policy would spark international protests. Moreover, the uproar over Alqasem – who, unlike other detainees, had some vague connection to BDS in the past – makes it abundantly clear that the harm Israel is inflicting upon itself is escalating exponentially with each and every new “suspect” detained at the country’s gates. 

But rather than reconsider its policy – or at least limit it to those for whom the law was ostensibly intended – the government is doubling down and digging in its heels. Not only is its policy at Ben-Gurion Airport totally warranted and completely justified, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said on Sunday, but the only reason the world cares is because those good-for-nothing leftists are making a big deal out of it. That line of reasoning should sound familiar to anyone who has gotten used to Trump blaming whatever goes wrong with his policies on everyone but himself.

Erdan’s attempt to pin the blame for the outcry over Alqasem’s plight on the government’s leftist critics sounds ludicrous at first. Leftist agitators, of whom Stephens and Weiss probably think less than Erdan himself, certainly didn’t cajole the two to write their article. But although the crude ploy seems like the latest remake of Dumb and Dumber, it is anything but. Incitement against backstabbers from within is the overarching strategy of Netanyahu and his coalition partners. It is their catch-all alibi for the world’s dim opinion of their policies toward the Palestinians and their escalating assault on democracy. It is a staple of right-wing propaganda that increases suspicions that the detention policy is being driven not by simple inanity, as it may seem, but by sinister intent.

The benefits for Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition are obvious. The artificial elevation of the BDS movement to the level of an existential threat allows the prime minister and his cohorts to rally Israelis behind them against yet another mortal enemy. Iran, after all, can’t lift such a heavy burden all by itself. Expanding the criteria for detention at the airport to include leftist critics of the government’s policies in the West Bank – even if they oppose BDS – enables government spokespersons to blur the line that should clearly distinguish between legitimate leftist dissent and the so-called “anti-Semitic” boycott movement. And by diverting the blame for the negative repercussions of its detention policy from themselves and pinning it on their critics instead, Erdan and others are helping to delegitimize their political foes and to convict them, through guilt by association, of aiding and abetting Israel’s worst enemies.

It is such a perfect vicious circle that one is hard pressed to ascribe it to foolhardiness alone. The more people who are stopped at the airport, the greater the international ruckus, the more dangerous BDS looks, the more the public hates it, the more the government can cast itself as defender of the people, the more Netanyahu can agitate his base, the easier it is for him to incite against the left as collaborators, the more public opinion will justify casting an even wider and more controversial net at Israel’s exits and entrances, and so on and so forth. For Netanyahu and his partners, who wither when Israelis feel safe and thrive when they feel threatened, isolated and unfairly maligned, it’s a virtual slam-dunk. 

Think about it: Despite the conventional wisdom that Israel is obsessed with maintaining its good image and that it spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on PR and propaganda, Netanyahu’s cabinet and coalition have proven time and again that the expediency of local politics always takes precedence over the country’s international standing. Would a government that cares for the world’s opinion legislate the superfluous nation-state law, despite knowing full well that it would cast Israel as an ethnocentric Jewish supremacist state that openly discriminates against minorities? Would a government supposedly committed to maintaining good relations with American Jews, hitherto Israel’s greatest advocates bar none, renege on a signed deal with the Reform and Conservative movements over prayers at the Western Wall, despite being apprised of the lasting harm that its decision would cause? Would a government concerned about the rise of BDS persist with its detention policy, despite knowing that its actual influence on the movement’s activities is negligible, while its contribution to boosting its credentials is formidable?

The answer, of course, is yes, it would, because yes, it has, consistently and repeatedly. Judging by its actions, one might even conclude that Netanyahu and his ministers have a vested interest in sullying Israel’s name as much as they can. The worse Israel’s standing abroad, the more its actions are blasted at the United Nations, lambasted in Europe and condemned by leftists in general, the better it is for Netanyahu, Likud and the entire right wing. The whole world is against us, the government can claim, and it’s mostly the fault of those local leftists who defame it abroad. Which all comes round to the theme of Netanyahu’s entire political career, the open secret of his success, the slogan that says it all: Smite the lefty and save Israel.

This has nothing to do with whether Israel has the constitutional right to refuse entry to people who, in its view, espouse views that threaten its existence. This philosophical debate, with appropriate international references, serves as the right wing’s first line of defense, but is nothing more than a red herring. As the famous Israeli saying notes, it’s better to be smart than right, a prescription that is particularly pertinent for beleaguered governments that are supposed to engage in realpolitik rather than score points to defend their country’s interests. 

So is the detention policy a simple case of the Israeli government cutting off its nose to spite its face or a manifestation of its deviously divisive machinations? The most likely answer is that is a combination of both, but it doesn’t really matter. As Margaret Atwood wrote in her second novel, “Surfacing,” way before her Handmaid fame, “Stupidity is the same as evil, if you judge by the results.”