Opinion

The UN's Israel 'Blacklist' Is One Giant Shaggy Dog Joke

The punchline of boycotting companies doing business with settlements is destined to be a letdown

A Caterpillar excavator is displayed at the China Coal and Mining Expo 2013 in Beijing, China October 22, 2013.
Kim Kyung Hoon, Reuters

If the world is serious about boycotting companies that support the Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank, the terms for making the secretive "blacklist" of companies that do business there, released by the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday, are the way to go.

Most, although by no means all, of the criteria behind the blacklist strike at the heart of the settlement enterprise, and would be quite effective as grounds for concrete sanctions.

And that could explain why Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, reacted so hysterically.

When the Human Rights Council originally voted to create the "database" (i.e., the “blacklist”) two years ago, Danon called the list “anti-Semitic” and growled, "When the UN marks Jewish businesses so they can be boycotted, it reminds of us dark times in history.”

He returned to the UN-as-Nazi theme again this week when he expressed outrage that the council's interim "blacklist" report came out the day the United Nations was set to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

To be clear, the blacklist will not be a blanket list targeting any and all businesses involved in the West Bank settlements, as you might think. The criteria of inclusion are that a company engage in one or more of 10 activities that directly facilitate settlement construction and maintenance, like supplying building materials, transportation services and finance, including mortgages. Others address exploitation of natural resources in the West Bank and waste-dumping there that directly harm Palestinians.

The blacklist, interim or final, doesn't target Jews per se, or Israel as a country. As a targeted boycott designed to make the settlers’ life more difficult, and give a little help to the Palestinians, it would do the trick.

Caterpillar and the olive tree

Strictly speaking, most of the 206 companies on the list – which we know, though they haven't been disclosed yet – are probably Jewish-owned; 143 are located in Israel. That much the United Nations does disclose. Caterpillar, Priceline.com, TripAdvisor and Airbnb are reportedly on the list too.

Throwing anti-Semitism into the ring is a useful strategy for trying to end any discussion by branding the other side racist. It’s the stock in trade of identity politics everywhere. So why shouldn't Danon & Co. use it, too?

But the rest of us should know better. Also, there are some dangerous passages in the UN "blacklist" report that could be the basis for abuse.

For instance, the report implies that a foreign company can be deemed responsible for promoting the settlements if its products are sold by others.

Reasonably that might apply to Caterpillar, whose heavy equipment is used both to build settlements and destroy the homes of Palestinian terrorists. But should a garden tool company be named because its axes might have been used by a settler to cut down Palestinian olive trees?

Punch and Judy

That depends on how the UN apparatchiks preparing the list interpret the mandate they were given by the Human Rights Council. Right now, it doesn’t look like they will run wild since they admit they are struggling just to assemble a list of 206 companies. Growing it to thousands or tens of thousands would take years.

The bigger question surrounding the blacklist is whether Israel is being unfairly singled out by the United Nations.

Of course it is. The world is full of human rights abuses much worse than anything that goes on in the West Bank, and the Human Rights council ignores them.

One way the council justifies itself is by portraying Israeli abuses in hysterical terms. Thus, to quote, the HRC interim report, “The violations of human rights associated with the settlements are pervasive and devastating, reaching every facet of Palestinian life . Businesses play a central role in furthering the establishment, maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements.”

Really now, the West Bank isn’t a human rights Garden of Eden, but saying that when Airbnb lets a settler list his apartment it becomes a tool of Israeli oppression is a stretch.  

But the Human Rights Council's preoccupation with Israel doesn't have anything to do with anti-Semitism. Rather, it's because condemning Israeli human rights violations is easy. Israel has no natural bloc of allies in UN forums to automatically take its side, and it’s regarded by much of the world as the last vestige of Western colonialism.

Israel is the world’s natural whipping boy, but it’s all a Punch and Judy show writ large. For all the screaming and shouting, no one is really getting hurt.

The UN committee that kicked off the whole blacklist affair completed its work in 2013. It’s been two years since the Human Rights Council voted to create the infamous database, and it’s still not complete. Most companies on it haven’t even been contacted to get their response. The council has no enforcement powers and its moral authority isn’t what you would call towering.

If the United Nations were serious about imposing sanctions on Israel and/or the settlements, it would do so through the Security Council, which has acted more than 20 times since the end of the Cold War. Even those boycotts are rarely effective, but on paper the United Nations acts quickly and decisively when it wants to. Ask Iran or North Korea.

The bottom line is that Israel is being singled out but only for display, not for action. Danny Danon and the settlers can rest easy.