Opinion |

On BDS, Israeli Politicians Are Inflaming Friends and Strengthening Enemies

Soft power warfare against Israel can't be combatted by brute and coercive state power. Instead of its inept and ineffective anti-BDS campaign, the Knesset should leave the fight to NGOs.

Gerald M. Steinberg
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Demonstrators AIPAC
Opposing demonstrators from the Support Palestine group and Jewish Defense League argue outside the AIPAC policy conference, March 26, 2017.Credit: ANDREW BIRAJ/AFP
Gerald M. Steinberg

The friction between liberal diaspora Jews and the Israeli government was recently highlighted over the new laws and regulations designed to counter BDS campaigns and political warfare. The denunciation of the Knesset legislation authorizing the government to deny visas to BDS activists highlights this conflict.

For the critics, the restrictions are assaults on democracy, and worse. But for Israeli politicians on the right and center of the political spectrum, the BDS visa law, like other measures, was a necessary response to the ugly political war being waged against the Jewish state. Such policies provide headlines for the politicians and show determination to defeat the demonization campaigns using the apartheid libel, and cavalierly accuse IDF soldiers of war crimes.

Similarly, Israeli politicians repeatedly denounce groups like Breaking the Silence and B’tselem, whose leaders travel the world condemning the IDF, annoying large segments of the Israeli public (not only the right). These attacks are largely ineffective, and they allow the NGOs to portray themselves as victims of a witch-hunt.

Similarly, for many Zionists around the world who are not interested in domestic Israeli politics, the BDS legislation and similar policies are entirely counter-productive. The use of legislation (especially measures that will not pass scrutiny from the courts), regulations, and other approaches cause significant damage to Israel’s international image. The picture that emerges is one of a powerful, aggressive government harassing weak NGOs.

Anti-BDS convention
Anti-BDS convention at the UN in New York, June 2016Credit: Shachar Azran

This process was highlighted in the condemnations of the law restricting visas for BDS activists. A statement issued by the Association for Israel Studies (of which I am a member) emphasizes this diverse group's commitment to fighting BDS campaigns, including discrimination against Israeli academics and institutions, and asserts that that “This law undermines our ability to continue to do so.”

Colin Shindler, a British professor from the classic Zionist left who has fought the good fight for many years, published an op-ed on this theme in Haaretz ("These Academics Fight BDS on Campus Every Day. Will They Be Banned From Israel?")  He described how academics from around the world stood with Israel in opposing academic boycotts, and achieved important successes in this fight. Nevertheless, he claims that “many of the leading lights [who] have struggled valiantly against the advocates of BDS on U.S. campuses, .may find themselves barred from entering the country simply because they don’t hold the ‘correct’ view on the West Bank settlements and the purchase of their produce.”

This fear is exaggerated, and academic critics of Israeli policy who do not lead BDS campaigns will not be barred, but their concerns should not be dismissed. Recently, before her passport was stamped, an official of the New Israel Fund was questioned about BDS activities by an overzealous border control officer upon arrival at Ben Gurion airport.

Paris BDS
Protesters in Paris demonstrate against Israel's first officially sanctioned new West Bank settlement in more than 25 years, April 1, 2017.Credit: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

Adding to the confusion was the government's mishandling of the work visa application submitted by Omar Shakir, a real BDS activist employed by Human Rights Watch to "report on Israel/Palestine". In rejecting the application, the Interior Ministry noted that HRW has long been guilty of exploiting human rights language to falsely accuse Israel of war crimes, and staffers promoting this agenda had no right to a work visa. But in keeping the rejection secret, Israel allowed HRW to promote a very distorted version of events, comparing Israel to North Korea, which was widely quoted around the world. The government was then on the defensive, and the BDS activist received a tourist visa and a personal welcome from the Foreign Ministry. 

Another manifestation of awkward and ineffective measures aimed at BDS and demonization takes the form of efforts to limit foreign funding for NGOs that lead the political war against Israel, including the boycott campaigns and lawfare. If such laws are ever approved, the European government officials who guide these funds for favorite NGOs through the system, will simply increase the budgets to cover the taxes.

Therefore, instead of attempting to use state power against the NGOs that lead BDS and lawfare campaigns, Israeli politicians should leave the counter-attacks to the NGOs that have proven effective on this front. In this “soft power” conflict, NGOs have a major advantage over governments; NGOs do not have to please voters and are able to build alliances with different actors in Israel and abroad.  Such groups have the expertise and flexibility to seriously counter demonization.

Israel peace movement
Israel peace movement rallies against 50 years of the occupation, Jerusalem, 1st April 2017Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

More importantly, a contest of NGOs against NGOs does not contribute to the friction between the Israeli government and liberal Zionists abroad. NGOs (also known as civil society) are by their very nature voluntary organizations - they advance their agendas through persuasion, often with media allies, in contrast to the coercive use of state power. These are critical differences generally overlooked by the Israeli politicians leading the charge against demonization.  

Soft power warfare like the BDS and lawfare campaigns are relatively new forms of international conflict and Israeli politicians have not proven very adept in dealing with these attacks. Instead of building alliances and expanding resources, as required for success on the more familiar military battlefield, the spate of legislation has had the opposite effect. It is time for the Knesset and the various ministers involved in these policies to change strategy.

Gerald Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor and professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

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