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Since independence in 1948, Israel has been confronted by boycott campaigns, beginning with the Arab League’s extensive embargo that continues in many countries. The objective of this form of warfare was and remains the rejection of the sovereign Jewish nation-state, regardless of boundaries.
In 2001, the Non-Governmental Organizations Forum of the United Nation’s Durban "World Conference against Racism" expanded this campaign in the form of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. The NGOs at Durban, including global powers such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, adopted a final declaration, sponsored by Palestinians and written during a preparatory conference in Tehran, calling for "the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation, and training) between all states and Israel".
After Durban, the BDS movement’s first action in 2002 focused on a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, led by British trade union activists and NGOs. Additional campaigns target large Israeli firms (including banks), export products, and tourism. The NGO boycott movement has become a major form of "soft power" warfare, reinforcing the ongoing security threats faced by Israel.
The language of the BDS campaign reflects its objectives: referring to all of Israel as "occupied territory" and exploiting the "apartheid" label, accompanied by crude allegations of "genocide", "ethnic cleansing", and war crimes. Boycott campaigns, including the widespread embargo on academic ties, were closely associated with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and thus the use of this tactic is designed to reinforce the image. The Durban process also revived the 1975 UN "Zionism is racism" resolution that was repealed in 1991. BDS leaders, such as Sue Blackwell, refer to their campaign as a means of combating the "illegitimate state of Israel" and preventing Israelis from being treated as "normal citizens from a normal state".
NGOs involved in BDS also promote the Palestinian narrative, such as on refugee claims (the so-called "right of return") that are inconsistent with the two-state framework necessary for a stable peace. Similarly, the militant advocacy of a one-state formula, meaning the replacement of Israel by a Palestinian-Arab state, is part of the BDS agenda.
In this context, recent moves by influential NGOs on the Israeli Left, such as Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, to promote economic and cultural boycotts of communities beyond the green line (the 1949-1967 ceasefire line) are inseparable from the BDS movement. While NGO officials refer to "targeted boycotts", the use of this divisive tactic and symbol blurs the core distinction between the objectives of the two boycott campaigns. While the Zionist Israeli Left claims to oppose BDS, its use of selective boycotts adds more weight and recognition to the established BDS "brand-name" and suggests that Israeli peace groups are silent partners.
This wedge tactic and the blurring of opposition to settlements with the wider rejection of Israel’s legitimacy, regardless of policies and borders, is a central BDS strategy. In many cases, anti-occupation language is used as a ruse to gain legitimacy. Boycott campaigns targeting Israeli banks, the export cooperative Agrexco, and other major economic enterprises, are explained by the claim that all Israeli firms contribute to the occupation. And disruptive demonstrators who invade stores in London and other European cities that sell Israeli creams and lotions from the Dead Sea claim that these are "products of the occupation" when in fact most of the western shore of the Dead Sea was part of Israel prior to the 1967 war and the occupation claim is part of the obfuscation.
As a result, in the framework of Israeli politics, the Left’s use of boycott tactics has created a major backlash. This angry response is reflected in the Knesset’s adoption of a law enabling Israeli victims of boycotts, regardless of where they are located, to bring suit against the promoters of these campaigns, claiming economic discrimination. (Many of the ideological attacks on this legislation as "anti-democratic" erroneously refer to "criminalization" of support for boycotts, but the mechanisms are strictly civil and will be challenged in the courts.)
The large-scale and often secret European government funding for boycott promoters–both BDS, such as the Coalition of Women for Peace, and settlement-linked including Peace Now–adds to the resentment among Israelis. This is reflected in opinion polls by the Tami Steinmetz Center at Tel-Aviv University and by support for politicians on the Right who promote legislation against foreign manipulation of Israeli democracy.
Thus, in the Israeli political arena, "limited boycotts" will not revive the Left, but rather increase the friction between the ideological poles and further alienate the Center. For groups claiming to promote peace, boycott campaigns in any form are counterproductive.
Gerald M. Steinberg is the founder and president of NGO Monitor and professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.