Israel and its allies are playing a dangerous game regarding settlements and the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. It stands to backfire on them very badly.
This miscalculation could force individuals, organisations and even states to take positions more hostile to Israel than they would prefer. But Israel’s government and its allies are leaving them no choice. And in the process, further damage is being done to the prospects for peace and a two-state solution, which is the only viable means of ending the conflict.
Legislation is moving through the US Congress that conflates Israel with the occupied territories, and attempts to penalise states and other entities that refuse to do business with settlements. Worse still, the legislation as it is currently phrased proposes a legal definition of the BDS movement that is inaccurate and exceptionally dangerous.
The relevant language of the pending legislation is worth considering in full: “The term ‘boycott, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel’ means actions by states, non-member states of the United Nations, international organisations, or affiliated agencies of international organisations that are politically motivated and are intended to penalise or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.”
Under this formula, American law will define BDS as including, without distinction, measures that attempt to boycott and sanction Israel and Israelis in general and those that carefully target only Israel’s illegal and illegitimate settlement activities.
The self-defined BDS movement is very much focused on the first of these approaches. It is mainly supported by those who view a two-state solution as inadequate and insist on a one-state agenda that seeks to eliminate Israel altogether. This movement is almost entirely rhetorical and has met with very little success because there is not much of a constituency in the West for boycotting, let alone eliminating, Israel in its internationally recognised borders.
The real target of the legislation is the boycott project that actually exists and is having an impact. Led by the European Union, this strategy seeks to defend the prospects for peace and the two-state solution by carefully targeting Israel’s settlements and refusing to trade with, or invest in, them.
The European approach meticulously distinguishes between Israel in its internationally recognised boundaries, which is a legitimate UN member state, and Israel’s settlement project which is illegal and illegitimate, and is a human rights violation against the occupied Palestinian people. This approach is gaining ground throughout Europe and is even starting to make inroads in the US.
The European approach highlights the distinction between Israel and the occupation, whereas the BDS agenda conflates them. The pending American legislation, along with official Israeli rhetoric on the topic, complains bitterly about the “delegitimisation” of Israel.
Settlement boycotts do not “delegitimise” Israel at all. On the contrary, they insist on the legitimacy of Israel but also on the illegitimacy of the settlements. The irony is that, following the lead of the Israeli government, actions such as the pending American legislation do, in fact, delegitimise Israel by collapsing the distinction between the legitimate Israeli state and the illegal settlement programme.
By attempting to force, under penalty of law, the same attitude towards Israel and its settlements in occupied territories, this legislation is effectively saying there is no distinction. But if there is no distinction, it will not be the case that Israel’s legitimacy legitimizes the settlements. To the contrary, the illegitimate settlements will undermine the legitimacy of Israel.
The logic of the Israeli manoeuvre is obvious. It seeks to block the European approach of challenging settlement activity by confusing it with the BDS approach. The hope is that because there is little appetite in most of the West at the moment for a generalised boycott of Israel, boycotts of settlements can be undermined and possibly blocked altogether.
There is every likelihood this will backfire. If those who seek to defend the only viable prospect for peace – a two-state solution – are told what they are doing is no different from boycotting Israel, are they really likely to just give up? Or, instead, and especially over time, are they not more likely to, however reluctantly, boycott this undifferentiated greater Israel?
Whose bluff is really being called here?
A few years ago, two Italian supermarket chains, COOP and Nordiconad, decided they no longer wanted to help subsidise Israel’s settlements and asked for labelling of settlement produce. Israel would not comply, so the stores no longer sell any Israeli produce at all.
In the long run, the most plausible paradigm is a widespread repetition of this same pattern. And, amazingly enough, it will be Israel that has not only, and yet again, damaged the prospects for peace, but actually led the delegitimisation, boycott and sanctions campaign against itself.