Israel and the international boycott movement that opposes it have a symbiotic relationship.
Among the various types of symbioses, Israel’s relationship with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is categorized as mutualism: both sides depend on each other and both benefit from each other. Israel is interested in exaggerating the danger posed by BDS, and the movement draws strength from the over-hyped influence that Israel ascribes to it.
The role model for the BDS movement is the regime of sanctions imposed on South Africa during the apartheid period, although the comparison puts the anti-Israeli version in its proper place. At its peak during the mid-1980’s, the boycott of South Africa encompassed most of the world’s major countries and included commercial, financial, academic, sports and cultural sanctions. The boycott of Israel, in contrast, has enjoyed only modest success since its establishment in 2005, and that’s being generous. A handful of pension funds, churches, trade and academic unions have imposed partial or full boycotts, American Jews have been spooked by the nasty debates on some U.S. campuses and several popular entertainers have refused to perform in Israel, each generating massive headlines in the local press. Most of the world’s governments don’t support the boycott and some are actively legislating against it. The movement has caused only marginal damage, at worst.
Some of the credit for what is popularly known by the hashtag #BDSfail rightly belongs with Israeli and Jewish groups, mostly those who work their influence behind the scenes. If it hadn’t been systematically downgraded and neutered by successive Israeli prime ministers, there’s no doubt that the Foreign Ministry could have handled the anti-BDS campaign all by itself, with no need to establish a separate ministry. But maintaining a low profile does not serve the interests of the Israeli government or its politicians. Depicting the boycott movement as an existential threat only slightly less acute than an Iranian nuclear bomb enhances the sense of victimization, siege and the feeling that “the whole world is against us,” which always helps the right; it provides a platform for politicians such as Yair Lapid to show how abundantly patriotic they are regarding an issue on which there is near-consensus; it gives the government a tool to repress criticism of its policies in the occupied territories under the guise of defending the homeland; it allows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to unite the American Jewish community behind him, despite other differences, and it allows the American Jewish establishment to rally its own troops and solicit more funds.
At a time when Donald Trump is U.S. president, however, and many European countries are busy fending off their Muslim minorities and/or their extreme right, the boycott movement is in peril once again. It is receding in the consciousness of Western public opinion. But no worries, Israel will come to its rescue. A series of measures such as the law against mosque loudspeakers (currently under Knesset consideration) or the law forbidding supporters of the boycott – either of Israel or of the territories – entry to Israel (which has already been approved) together with statements such as those made by Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), who suggested that Israel annex certain parts of the West Bank and establish South-Africa like Bantustans for the Palestinians, or by lawmaker Yoav Kish (Likud), who proposed that West Bank Palestinians be permanently deprived of their voting rights – all of these portray Israel as a country with something to hide and strengthen comparisons between the Jewish State and apartheid-era South Africa.
This allows the Israeli government to maintain its two-faced posture: to present Intel’s $15 billion purchase of the Israeli company Mobileye, for example, as a monumental failure of the BDS movement, while supplying it with new incentives and justifications that will ensure that it continues to thrive. Don’t give up, Israel is telling its so-called adversaries. If people start to put you down, we will reiterate just how dangerous you really are, and if you’re having problems convincing new recruits, we will make sure to give you the winning arguments.
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