It’s easy to give in to the sense that the increasing deterioration in Israel’s international standing is some kind of cosmic punishment being imposed on the right-wing government for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory. Easy, but foolish. There clearly is a concerted boycott campaign against Israel, but if anything can be learned from the case of South Africa it’s that one cannot expect boycotts alone to change the situation.
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Even the personal animosity between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama and the strained relations between their governments will not result in a reassessment of long-standing policy, which is influenced by a complex set of factors. The constraints on punitive measures that the constellation of American political power would permit and Israel’s association agreement with the European Union are evidence that we are far from a general break with the rules that have prevailed up to now.
Sanctions that would limit or halt trade and put a stop to private investment and business development are effective. The 1985 announcement by Chase Manhattan Bank that it would not renew short-term loans to South Africa’s ruling National Party until it ended apartheid was an important milestone in the fight against that policy, in large measure because other banks joined in, causing a liquidity crisis for the Pretoria government. But despite the difficulties created by these measures, it is doubtful they would have played a decisive role in the eventual regime change, were it not for the assistance of internal forces.
The opposition in South Africa never stopped creating its own disruptions. It went to great effort to maintain international awareness about apartheid. It cooperated with foreign organizations and encouraged the boycott, without fearing that the NP would label it unpatriotic. The rivalry and bitterness between the opposition and opponents of the South African regime on one hand and those in power on the other were sufficiently deep to create two peoples, rendering anti-apartheid, pro-sanctions forces around the world the enemy of one and the savior of the other.
In what way does this resemble the Israeli opposition? Could anyone imagine the head of the opposition, Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog, or perhaps his No. 2, Tzipi Livni, or Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, or his party colleague Ofer Shelah, calling for a boycott of products from West Bank Jewish settlements and for economic and other sanctions, to help put an end to the occupation?
For now, they are all competing with Netanyahu, his cabinet and the Yedioth Ahronoth daily to be the staunchest opponents of the boycott. An automatic patriotic response kicks in, resulting in a false united front in the face of international condemnation.
The refusal, on both sides of the aisle, to accept full responsibility for the occupation and its consequences is reflected in a denial of guilt by the public as a whole, as if the situation of the Palestinians is none of its business and not its responsibility to remedy. The world, people here say, always judges Israeli harshly.
The economic price of apartheid and the burden that it imposed on South Africans were important factors in ending white-minority rule. But the occupation, which also constitutes a heavy economic burden on Israelis, does not affecting voting patterns in Israel’s geographic and socioeconomic periphery, in towns with high unemployment, despite the fact that they are denied the resources that are directed into the settlements.
And when everyone is to blame except for us, it’s comforting to console ourselves with a feeling of victimhood that is stripped of historic and moral responsibility. The bad news is that the current state persists because nobody else will do our job for us.