Why boycotts are the wrong strategy for Palestinians

A reader asks me: ?Why do you not support the movement for BDS [boycott, divestment, sanctions] a tactic that is non-violent, has had a positive role in ending other injustices, has begun to show significant results in the Palestine/Israel conflict and which terrifies the most regressive elements within Zionism, elements whose tolerance for endless ?peace process? jawboning seems limitless?? Thanks very much for this very interesting question.

In a nutshell, I just don’t think boycotts are likely to be effective, especially ad hoc ones, in advancing the Palestinian national interest. Some forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions aimed at the occupation and that are part of a clearly defined political strategy focusing on the occupation and designed to help end the occupation could conceivably be useful, at least in theory. As you say, these tactics have been useful in other situations aimed at challenging extreme injustice, as the occupation certainly embodies. However, effective boycotts would have to be an integral part of a well-conceived and coordinated strategy that is driven by a political and diplomatic agenda. Ad hoc boycotts are unlikely to be particularly useful or effective, unless they are consistent with an overall strategy whose ultimate goal is diplomatic and coordinated by the Palestinian national leadership. Right now, that doesn’t exist because the national leadership is pursuing a different approach, and so this project is entirely disconnected from the overall national political strategy.

It’s extremely questionable whether the Palestinian national leadership at this stage would be well advised to pursue a strategy that includes boycotts, since the project of institution-building in preparation for a Palestinian state would certainly seem to be among the most urgent tasks facing the Palestinian people. In fact, most of what the Palestinian Authority and the PLO are trying to do in terms of institution building and economic development in Palestine requires a certain degree of coordination and sometimes cooperation with Israel. Obviously, many people don’t like this, and it’s one of the bases for the fatuous “collaborator” calumny, but honestly, there is no choice given the facts on the ground, so to speak, if one wants to do anything constructive in the occupied territories in terms of building Palestinian institutions and infrastructure and pursuing economic development. A strategy that emphasizes boycotts against Israel would be hard to reconcile with one emphasizing investment and institution building in Palestine. Among many other problems, it would probably eliminate Israel’s inclination to cooperate in any way with Palestinian institution and economic development projects.

Of course, many people who are involved in the BDS project are highly unsympathetic to the project of institution building towards independence and economic development for the Palestinian people, thinking that all such efforts under conditions of occupation means unscrupulous collaboration and treachery. Indeed, much of this project tends to be aimed not at the occupation but at Israel as such, which is one reason why it is highly unlikely that it will ever gain much traction in Western societies, especially the United States. Any BDS project aimed at Israel as such will run into exceptionally powerful opposition in Western societies, especially the all-important (especially to Israel) United States, which I don’t believe can be overcome in order for it to become a major factor in the Israeli-Palestinian equation.

Insofar as the BDS idea centers on in effect “defeating” Israel through sanctions and boycotts, I think it has no hope of success whatsoever. It’s a feel-good fantasy, and a way for people to reject all things Israel and Israeli, and to feel that they are doing something useful in opposition to Israel, and to mobilize sentiment, but I really don’t think there is any realistic prospect of widespread divestment and sanctions against Israel as such in most Western societies, and certainly not in the United States. I have been to numerous divestment conferences and meetings on American university campuses, and I always advised that divestment rhetoric was a useful way of beginning the conversation about the conditions of the occupation, but that divestment itself was an unrealistic goal and that people should use it tactically in order to begin a conversation and not seriously pursue it as if it were realistically achievable.

Even if widespread BDS were accomplished in Western societies towards Israel, which is certainly a remote possibility at best, I think it is extremely doubtful that this would be sufficient to compel Israel to capitulate and agree to the mass return of refugees, the creation of a single state from the river to the sea, or any other measure that would be regarded as a form of national suicide by most Israelis. The Palestinians, after all, have been facing what amounts to an exceptionally ruthless boycott since at least 1948, and this has not weakened their national spirit or their commitment to their national project. I think expecting such measures to cause the collapse of Israeli national morale is deeply unrealistic, and reflects what I have written about before as the deep-seated and extremely damaging fantasy that Israel is a fragile, temporary entity that is about to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

Historically, boycotts (along with armed struggle) have been one of the two principal elements of Arab resistance to Israel since 1948, and while it’s true that the so-called BDS project is a new version of Arab boycotts against Israel (now focusing on Western societies), it’s still the boycott tactic yet again. It hasn’t worked in the past, and I’m convinced that it won’t work at the present time, especially not when it is done by ad hoc groups of people not only without being part of a broad diplomatic strategy by the national leadership, but in contradiction to the diplomatic strategy of the PLO.

I don’t agree that Israel or most Israelis are “terrified” of boycotts, although some may no doubt be worried about their potential to cause harm, which is a realistic concern. However, causing this kind of limited pain to Israelis is not the key to achieving Palestinian rights, which can only be secured in practice through an agreement with Israel since neither a military victory nor political tactics such as boycotts and economic pressure, which have been used by both sides in the conflict for 60 years, have succeeded in defeating or breaking the will of either Israel or the Palestinians. Only through a negotiated agreement can Palestinians achieve the end of the occupation. Given this reality, the costs of a BDS campaign probably outweigh any potential benefits. It is more useful to look for ways of moving past the zero-sum equation towards some form of mutually acceptable win-win dynamic that can produce a lasting agreement that end the occupation.

I understand and share the reader?s frustration with “endless peace process jawboning,” and it’s definitely true that 16 years since negotiations began we still have no agreement, settlements have increased and the occupation has become in many ways more onerous, which produces inevitable skepticism about negotiations. However, it’s also still the case that negotiations could succeed where nothing else can. I’ll have more to say about the reasons why negotiations with Israel on ending the occupation must remain the centerpiece of Palestinian national strategy. But these boycotts, while they appeal to many grassroots activists, are not a serious strategic response to the occupation. They may make people feel good and help mobilize some energy, albeit in the wrong direction, but I am extremely skeptical that they will ever be a major factor in bringing an end to the occupation, and they obviously have no chance whatsoever of precipitating the collapse or capitulation of Israel as many of their proponents seem to imagine they could.