Should Sanctions Be the Price Israelis Pay for Their Indifference?

They may not have single-handedly felled apartheid, but sanctions were a powerful psychological weapon against the propaganda and inertia of those in power. BDS could do the same to Israel.

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David Rosenberg’s article in Haaretz: “The myth that sanctions felled apartheid”  (September 18) draws all the wrong conclusions from all the right statistics about apartheid, sanctions and their possible relevance to Israel. It also makes the mistake, common among economists, of ignoring anything that can’t be tabulated.

No one who knows anything about South African apartheid believes that it was singlehandedly overthrown by sanctions. Apartheid imploded because of a number of inter-woven factors which, cumulatively, made the system unworkable and brought it to its knees. There was no single factor.

Which doesn’t mean that sanctions didn’t play a role in bringing down apartheid; it simply didn’t play the only role.

Sanctions are effective in four ways: They impact a country’s economy, they impact the personal finances of specific individuals, often those most invested in the system, they send the message that the country’s policies are unacceptable to the wider world and they damage the self-esteem of those being boycotted.

Of those four factors, Rosenberg only deals with the first – which is understandable because it is the only one that finds its way into the spreadsheets and erudite studies that he quotes. And even those figures don’t tell the full story. Divestment may have enabled South African companies to “buy multinational assets at fire sale prices,” but sanctions prevented them from obtaining both the investment and the computer systems to run and grow those assets.

Sanctions focused the minds of the – white – South African business community, which had assets but not the means to leverage them. Even before the apartheid government released Nelson Mandela from jail and began negotiating a handover of power, South African business was preparing the ground in formally illegal meetings with the African National Congress – establishing itself in effect as a potent fifth column within the apartheid state.

As for the intangible effects of sanctions, which Rosenberg doesn’t mention, they don’t have what it takes to bring down a regime, but they are certainly capable of weakening its foundations – which is precisely what they did in South Africa.

Most countries have the same need to be liked that people have. That may not be true of North Korea, say, but it was certainly true of South Africa and it is just as true of Israel. For both South Africa and Israel it was (and in Israel still is) crucially important to be seen as an integral part of the West and an intrepid fighter for western values.

South Africa presented itself not as a racist oppressor of its black citizens but as a bulwark in the fight against communism. It even sent its army to fight Cuban communists in Angola. For the apartheid regime, the failure of the West (though not the Reagan administration for several years) to see it as the anti-communist ally it thought itself to be was an abiding and tragic mystery.

Likewise Israel, which has jumped on the anti-jihadist bandwagon to portray its fight against Hamas as a forward front in the global campaign against the Islamic State/ISIS.

Sanctions were highly effective at countering South Africa’s anti-communist propaganda and keeping it in the public eye as the racist entity it truly was. They can play the same role regarding Israel; keeping the occupation and the settlements front and center, while Israel bangs on about the Islamic threat.

Sanctions are as much a psychological as an economic weapon. The effect of the sports boycott on sports-mad South Africa in the Seventies and Eighties was devastating. For one of the world’s top two rugby teams, being unable to play international rugby was both hurtful and humiliating. Did it bring down apartheid? No. it didn’t. But it certainly brought home the message that apartheid was beyond the pale and it promised a woeful future. Those are not the sort of things one finds in a spreadsheet, but their practical significance was enormous.

Not all Israelis support the occupation, but few do anything about it. Bans on international travel, on participation in international events and on visits by international teams and celebrities will go a long way towards undermining our inertia and reminding us that there is a price to pay for our indifference. If only for that reason, the BDS movement is important.

Finally, the issue of whether the policies of modern-day Israel can be described as apartheid is irrelevant. Even if there were no points of comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel, the question of the efficacy of sanctions in changing a country’s policies is still valid – and entirely apposite.

With Iran still under sanctions and the NATO countries slapping sanctions on Russia as if there were no tomorrow, it would appear that boycotts are far from being the ineffective and debased tool that Rosenberg would have us believe. The fact that they were not the single most important factor in South Africa doesn’t mean that they weren’t effective then – nor that they couldn’t be effective against Israel now.

Roy Isacowitz is a journalist and writer living in Tel Aviv and an editor at Haaretz English.

Shimon Peres and Nelson Mandela,  after a meeting at Mandela's house in Houghton, Johannesburg, Tuesday Sept. 3, 2002.
AP