A Powerful BDS Movement Would Be as Unjust as the Occupation

Say the BDS campaign gained real power. Would it really stop before destroying Israel, whose existence it consistently bewails? The most reasonable answer is that it wouldn’t.

Brian Reeves
Brian Reeves
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Protesters shout anti-Israel slogans during a protest in front of a court house, Istanbul, Turkey, November 6, 2012.
Protesters shout anti-Israel slogans during a protest in front of a court house, Istanbul, Turkey, November 6, 2012. Credit: Reuters
Brian Reeves
Brian Reeves

Gideon Levy’s recent article castigates the Israeli left for supposedly remaining blind to the reality that the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel is the only way to end the occupation and bring about peace.

His pitch for this highly controversial path came as a response to Haaretz editor Aluf Benn’s call for a reinvigorated Israeli left as an effective and non-destructive alternative to BDS.

Benn’s prescription certainly seems insufficient; the left has for years demonstrated its ineptitude at galvanizing broad support for a more conciliatory approach toward the Palestinians. Levy’s case for BDS, however, confirms just how short-sighted even the most well-informed of its champions can be.

Levy’s argument can be distilled as follows. A strong international BDS regime would cause Israel to tack right, but once the economic costs take their toll Israelis would by and large come to abandon the settlements. Alternatively, Israelis may elect to keep the settlements but concede to living in a “single democratic state.”

The superficiality of this reasoning is disturbingly simplistic, but also helpfully revealing. At the heart of it lies the premise that settlements, and only settlements, are the barrier to fruitful talks for a final status resolution. Indeed, Levy repeats the same hypothetical multiple times, using different settlement names as examples, without offering a single other problem that has made the conflict so intractable.

It is not difficult to find this train of logic lacking. Were Israel to abandon the settlement enterprise, the other well-known obstacles to peace would remain. The Palestinians would still need to concede on core issues, including a commitment to an end of violence, an “end of claims” agreement that effectively nullifies the right of return, and likely some form of mutual recognition of both people’s historical and cultural ties to the land.

Israel would still need to relinquish its security control in the West Bank — an apparatus which Levy conveniently neglects to mention helps provide safety not just for settlers but for all Israelis. To do so, Israeli redeployments would have to be coordinated with the Palestinian leadership, preferably in the context of confidence-building measures, so as to empower the moderates’ narrative and to minimize violence from spoilers seeking to exploit the temporary lull in security during the transition.

Even former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III, a figure reviled in many pro-Israel circles for his tough positions on Israel and occasional anti-Semitic outbursts, made the distinction that while he did not think there was “any bigger obstacle to peace than the settlement activity,” there are other obstacles “every bit as big.”

Even if Levy did not intend to cast settlements as a be-all-end-all, his proposal relies on an even more rash assumption. Were an international BDS mechanism to become so potent as to generate “shortages and economic crises,” the international community would still somehow be able and considerate enough to calibrate the pressure on Israel to compromise on settlements, yet leave it breathing space to safeguard its basic national interests in negotiations. BDS has long been criticized for the inexact consequences that its broad-stroked tactics would tend to produce, yet Levy regurgitates the idea without a hint of reservation.

If the BDS movement — a cause whose supporters and slogans overwhelmingly call for the end of Israel — acquires such power, what is to stop it from compelling Israel to concede on right of return, or statehood in general? Why would the campaign stop short of bringing about Israel’s demise when it consistently bewails Israel’s existence and considers even liberal groups like Peace Now and J Street to be part of the problem? The most reasonable answer is that it wouldn’t.

That leads to Levy’s final point: the option for Israelis to embrace a merger of Israel and the Palestinian Territories into a “single democratic state.” Here, it is important to note that he does not use the generic term “one-state solution,” nor does he refer to a “bi-national state.” In contrast to the latter, a “single democratic state” affords no deference to the deeply ingrained nationalisms of both sides.

On the surface, this option may sound ideal — two peoples laying aside past differences for a shared future built on universal values. The term however comes straight from Fatah’s ideological writings, which champion Palestinian national identity while fervently rejecting the very legitimacy of Jewish national identity — the core principle of Zionism. Likewise, neither Fatah nor any other Palestinian national movement has ever called for a “bi-national state.”

Thus, the espousal in practice of the “single democratic state” option is not to support an egalitarian society. Rather, it represents a call for the unconditional surrender of one side’s claims to accommodate the other.

Moreover, to force such an outcome would be utterly reckless. The most liberal, unthreatened nations on earth have not abandoned their national identity. Why then should it ever be expected of Israelis, who have been locked in a decades-long ethno-nationalist battle, and who would be required to assimilate into the very nation that fought and for generations demonized them?

There is every reason to be concerned with the large domestic Israeli support for the settlements. As a recent study reminds, settlements continue to fundamentally exacerbate the already corrosive and entrenched nature of the occupation.

But if those throughout the international community truly wish to contribute to an enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they should adopt pressure and inducement strategies with clear goals that are grounded in fairness and reasonable expectations for both parties. The need for Israel to stem anti-democratic sentiment and to curb its increasingly invasive occupation may be urgent; however, we should not fall prey to the impulse for blunt and extreme measures bearing all the signs of precipitating further intransigence and injustice on both sides.

Brian Reeves is a DC-based analyst on Israeli politics and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Previously, he lived in Jerusalem and was a visiting fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. @BrianNReeves

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