Israel’s Response to Boycotts and Soft-Power Warfare


In parallel to military conflict and terrorism, Israel has been subject to different forms of economic warfare, boycotts, and delegitimization even before the formation of the state. In recent years, this soft-power warfare emphasized BDS (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions) campaigns, accompanied by UN resolutions and legal actions through the International Criminal Court (ICC). This chapter describes and analyzes the threats and responses including the main actors, strategies, and outcomes in this conflict dimension. Launched at the 2001 UN Durban Conference on Racism, the campaigns are led by the Palestinian leadership, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and an influential network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The strategy copied mechanisms and terminology used against the South African apartheid regime.

The Israeli government’s response began slowly and inconsistently, reflecting the low-level threat perception and capacity regarding soft-power conflict compared to hard power. The boycott and lawfare efforts received little attention in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, as IDF officials became concerned over potential impacts, including measures in the UN and ICC, the government increased the resources allocated to countering the campaigns. In 2015, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs was tasked with coordinating these efforts but with limited success. The NGO-led campaigns using terms such as “apartheid” to single out Israel increased, as well as more UN condemnations, pension fund divestment, and corporate responsibility ratings that relied on the same mechanisms. To a significant degree, this outcome reflects the inherent difficulties governments face in soft-power warfare.

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