Israel Needs Change but BDS is not the Answer

Since Israel’s 1967 capture of Gaza and the West Bank, seemingly little has changed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The territories remain under military rule and peace seems no closer. The Oslo Accords of 1993, where Israel and the Palestinian Authority recognized each other as legitimate entities and set out a roadmap to peace, gave some hope that soon peace would be on the way. But only seven years later, another cycle of violence began with the Second Intifada, during which thousands of Israelis and Palestinians died.

At the conclusion of that particular flare-up, Israel decided to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip by removing all military resources and Jewish residents from the area. This was in part an attempt to grant the Palestinians autonomy within Gaza and also representative of an understanding that Israel could not maintain itself as a Jewish majority state with democratic rights for all its citizens while maintaining control of Gaza. This was a decision that was met with widespread protest in Israeli society as many felt that Jews should not be kicked out of their homes and that the disengagement would threaten Israeli security. Eventually, the Israel Defense Forces had to go into Gaza and the northern West Bank and evict Israelis who refused to leave from their homes.

Within months, Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization, was elected to lead the Palestinian government. Fatah, the other dominant faction in Palestinian politics, refused to cede power, and Hamas eventually took over Gaza by force due to the post-disengagement power vacuum. The Israeli government tried to make a change to the status quo, to increase the autonomy of the Palestinian authority. They were met by rockets, rockets that have been responded to with Israeli military campaigns, and these events have set back the Israeli public’s and government’s will to support further change.

But change is happening in the Israeli political system, albeit slowly. Benjamin Netanyahu has served as prime minister for the past ten years and has not shown much willingness to engage in the compromise that is necessary for peace. Former Israeli military and intelligence chiefs have been some of the biggest critics of the ongoing regime of martial law in the West Bank. A new centrist alliance, Blue and White, with three out of its four top candidates being former Chiefs of Staff of the IDF has been formed. It seems poised to take over from Netanyahu’s Likud as the largest party in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Already its leader, Benny Gantz, has stated that maintaining Israel’s rule over Palestinians is not in Israel’s interest, a statement that a Palestinian Authority spokesperson said was encouraging.

Netanyahu recently publicly called for Otzma Yehudit, an ultra-right wing party composed of followers of Meir Kahane, who advocated for the forcible deportation of Arabs from Israel, to ally with a national religious party in the upcoming election. This was seemingly an attempt by Netanyahu to maintain his hold on power in the short term, but it has shown many in Israeli society that he is out of touch. It was a move that was condemned by important American Jewish organizations such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee. It is a decision that is pulling voters away from Likud and Bayit Yehudi — the party with which Otzma Yehudit joined — and has drawn criticism from some of the most prominent Religious Zionist rabbis and leaders in Israeli and global Jewish society. Change can happen in Israeli society.

But the BDS movement does not help that process. The ultimate flaw of BDS is that its leaders work to delegitimize Israel as a whole as opposed to specifically targeting or condemning actions that are undertaken by the Israeli government. It attempts to target the Israeli economy, the Israeli entertainment sector, and even Israeli academic institutions. One of its three principal demands, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, would result in the end of Israel as a Jewish state due to an influx of Palestinians into Israel that would eliminate the Jewish demographic majority. The words of its founders and activists like Omar Barghouti make this perfectly clear. Barghouti is one of the founders of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and one of the leading voices of the BDS movement, and he ironically also studied at Tel Aviv University. Multiple times he has reiterated his opposition to any two-state solution and has specifically spoken of BDS’s demand for a right of return for Palestinians to their lands as making the possibility of a Jewish state existing in the Land of Israel as being an impossibility.

He said, “You cannot reconcile the right of return for refugees with a two-state solution … a return for refugees would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. A two-state solution was never moral and it’s no longer working.” I am quite willing to take him on his word in this regard.  One of the characteristics inherent to the State of Israel is that it is a Jewish state — I will define that as a state with a Jewish majority. BDS’s demands would destroy the possibility of Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state.

Anti-Israel activist and academic Norman Finkelstein, who agrees with the principle of BDS and supports Palestinian rights, put it even more eloquently in an interview with human rights activist Frank Barat at Imperial College London. “I mean we have to be honest, and I loathe the disingenuousness. They [BDS] don’t want Israel. They think they are being very clever; they call it their three tier. We want the end of the occupation, the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. And they think they are very clever because they know the result of implementing all three is what, what is the result? You know and I know what the result is. There’s no Israel!”

Leaders of the BDS movement call for a widespread boycotting of companies active in Israel, not just in the “occupied” West Bank, in an attempt to target the Israeli economy. The academic boycott of Israel calls for professors and other academics all around the globe to not engage with Israeli academic institutions, something that seems counterintuitive given the understood importance of free discourse and collaboration in academia. The cultural boycott of Israel, in the form of the boycotting of Israeli cultural institutions and the encouragement of foreign artists to not perform in Israel, does little to harm the Israeli government other than a minor economic hit. Instead, it gives the government further fuel with which to condemn the movement, as an attack on its society and country.

The BDS movement also refuses to acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces. The Israel-West Bank barrier, through the government’s building of walls primarily in heavily inhabited areas and fences/passive security barriers in most other areas, was able to cut down on the number of suicide bombings and sniper attacks during the Second Intifada, a widespread militant uprising in the Palestinian territories from 2000 to 2005. After the completion of the first segment of the barrier in 2003, suicide bombing frequency fell from 73 in the previous three year period to twelve in the next three years. Indeed, Ramadan Shalah, the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has stated that the barrier has made it more difficult for Palestinians to carry out suicide attacks inside Israeli territory. It is entirely reasonable to argue that perhaps Israel is excessive in its response to the threat it faces, and that its security measures put a disproportionate amount of hardship on the lives of Palestinians. But to completely reject these security measures offhand is to ignore the fact that attacks still happen, albeit much less frequently, and that active groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad continue to advocate for attacks against Israel.

One can take issue with specific government policies of Israel. But they can also still acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel as a stated Jewish and democratic nation and acknowledge the very real issues that it continues to face. By attacking Israel as an apartheid state, the BDS movement seeks to delegitimize Israel, by comparing it to the racist segregationist regime in South Africa. Israel is by no means an apartheid state. Its citizens, Jewish and Arab, enjoy equal protection under the law, even if this doesn’t always manifest as equal treatment in society. As mentioned previously, I will admit that some of Israel’s security measures towards Palestinians in the territories, such as roadblocks and generally segregated roads, may be excessive. But ultimately I believe that they are rooted in a desire to maintain peace between two potentially hostile populations as opposed to enforcing a discriminatory regime on the basis of race. Referring to Israel as an apartheid state is an attempt to paint it as a force of evil while avoiding engagement with facts. How could anyone in the modern world think of an “apartheid state” as a legitimate one? This pandering in rhetorical attacks, attacks that feel quite personal to many Israelis and their supporters, only inhibits opportunities for dialogue and understanding.

BDS is an attempt to speed up change. Many have become frustrated with the seeming impasse that currently exists between the Israelis and Palestinians, and neither side’s leaders willingness to compromise on their foundations. But if a change is to be affected through the Israeli political system, as I believe it must be, BDS cannot be the solution. The Jewish-Israeli public is tiring of the status quo, of the impasse in negotiations, and of the current political climate. However there is one issue that unites them, and that is an opposition to BDS. Just as physical attacks often push people to the right, as was the case in Israeli politics during the intifada, surely rhetorical ones do as well. At the end of the day, the BDS movement has had no meaningful effect on Israel, especially economically. Israel’s economy is flourishing, and foreign investment continues to soar. All BDS does is provide a boogeyman that unites the Jewish-Israeli public against a perceived external threat. And what incentive is there for Israeli politicians or civilians to engage in meaningful discussions of peace when there is a seemingly vast movement seeking to delegitimize the very existence of their country?

The reality is change is happening though at a more sedate process than some might hope. Connections and dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, in addition to Israeli and Palestinian civil society as a whole, are certainly things that should be advocated for to speed up this process. But what BDS does is sow seeds of division.  

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