Boycotting the boycotters

Why Israel is as bad at fighting BDS as BDS is at fighting Israel

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Illustrative: Students protest at an anti-Israel demonstration at the University of California, Irvine. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)
Illustrative: Students protest at an anti-Israel demonstration at the University of California, Irvine. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)

On January 7, Israeli officials offered glowing self-praise for their decision to officially blacklist 20 organizations that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

“We have moved from defense to attack,” Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, whose tiny ministry conceived of the campaign and published the list, enthused in a Hebrew-language statement to the Israeli media. “Boycott organizations need to know that Israel will act against them,” he declared, “and will not allow [them] to enter its territory in order to harm its citizens.”

Critics in Israel and abroad suggested that Israel, by its own hand, had created an honor list of enemies it appears to fear, thereby magnifying and validating the groups.

Israeli politicians oscillate, sometimes wildly, between two modes of behavior: at times deeply thoughtful and responsible, at times bombastic and populist. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the two modes apart. A policy can be presented publicly as populist but be the product of careful analysis, while another that begins in cynical populism can take on a life of its own, becoming a political reality that can be hard to shake or reexamine.

Illustrative image of demonstrators outside the offices of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo protesting his executive order calling for New York companies to divest from organizations that support the BDS movement, June 9, 2016. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)

The public war on BDS, like the ministry driving it, began as a public relations gimmick. The Strategic Affairs Ministry was not born because of any sense that such an institution was needed, but to satisfy the political demands of sidelined politicians. It was founded in 2006 to allow Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman a seat at the top echelons of the cabinet despite the fact that he did not hold any senior cabinet post. In 2009, it was handed to Moshe Ya’alon because he needed a prestigious-sounding post while not serving as Israel’s defense minister, as he’d hoped. After the 2013 elections, it was joined to the similarly tiny intelligence and “international relations” ministries (the former does not oversee the intelligence services, while the latter does not oversee Israel’s diplomatic corps or international relations) and given to Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who lost out in the race for a real cabinet post when Netanyahu formed his new government.

After the 2015 elections, Netanyahu once again had to satisfy a ministerial ego. Gilad Erdan, the number two on the Likud list, felt marginalized in the coalition’s game of musical chairs when he was handed the Public Security Ministry, a major government agency responsible for Israel’s national police force and prisons service. So the “strategic affairs ministry” was deployed yet again in order to give Erdan a role in the security-diplomatic affairs of the nation.

Its founding rationale was distinctly unimpressive, but the Strategic Affairs Ministry is nevertheless a government agency, and as with all such agencies, including the best of them, its primordial impulse is to justify its own existence.

Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan at a Likud party conference in Lod, on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

This bureaucratic dynamic explains, in no small part, Israel’s escalation of its war on BDS.

That, and the basic instinct that drives right-wing politicians generally to magnify far-left organizations, from B’Tselem to Breaking the Silence to the various BDS-supporting groups. While decried as “silencing” these groups, Israel’s right-wing politicians eagerly discuss them at every turn and do not shirk opportunities to debate them on national television. As with the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s latest effort, they even sometimes produce enemy lists that help boost these groups’ fundraising. There is nothing quite as useful in right-wing politics as to be valiantly opposing some terrible enemy, real or otherwise.

Bureaucrats need to look busy, politicians need enemies – neither are driven by any clear sense of the nature, scope or threat of the real-world opponent they ostensibly face.

The point is not to argue that the effort against the BDS campaign is entirely cynical — these officials honestly believe this is an opponent worth battling — but only that the underlying motives that drive them, and that define Israel’s strategy in this contest, are determined not by that belief, but by more cynical external considerations.

In the end, Israel’s battle against BDS isn’t the sort of war that Israel’s political and planning elites are so good at fighting. Rather, it is domestic politics projected onto marginal groups of foreign activists who are bolstered and validated by the very Israeli effort against them.

Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian protesters supporting the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel demonstrate ahead of a Pharrell Williams concert outside Grand West Arena on September 21, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa (Michelly Rall/Getty Images via JTA)

Curiously, the same lacuna, the same impulse to act without the guidance of a deep and strategic understanding of the enemy being acted upon, characterizes the BDS movement itself.

BDS is a term that applies loosely to a diverse and often squabbling collection of core activists and media outlets who lead a larger but less well-organized group of supporters with varying degrees of involvement and activism. Some of the movement is rather openly and bluntly bigoted against Jews and Israel. Some of it is made up of well-meaning liberals at a loss for how else to aid the Palestinians in their plight. And some, as with all political movements, is a mix of well-meaning empathy and unexamined prejudice.

Yet all these groups share a characteristic that makes them anathema to Israelis — and thus, in the final analysis, useless to Palestinians. They do not understand Israelis on their own terms. They seek to affect Israelis’ behavior through boycotts and sanctions, but have no clear sense of why Israelis behave as they do in the first place — and thus of what sorts of pressure might be required to change that behavior.

They do not know that most Israelis back, in principle, withdrawal and separation from the Palestinians, or that since the Second Intifada that began in 2000, most Israelis no longer believe that Palestinian politics can reciprocate such an Israeli withdrawal with peace.

That is, they don’t know that Israelis oppose withdrawal because they believe the vacuum they leave behind will be filled by the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah or Islamic State.

This is not an apologia for Israel to be bandied about in the rhetorical skirmishes of overseas activists. It is a hard, visceral psychological reality that will likely determine the future welfare, prosperity and freedom of the Palestinians. Most Israelis believe their children’s lives are literally and directly endangered by the Palestinians’ liberation — far more endangered by that liberation than by the continued low-level conflict required to maintain the occupation. No amount of diplomatic shuttling or strident tweeting at Gal Gadot is likely to make a dent in that mainstream Israeli fear, which is constantly bolstered and validated by the rhetoric and actions of Hamas and other mainstream Palestinian groups, as well as the experience of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal.

Hamas supporters take part in a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist terror group, in Gaza City on December 14, 2017.
(Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The point here is not to argue whether this majority Israeli view about the dangers of withdrawal is correct. There is a more important point here: Israelis’ threshold for pressure is not as the BDS movement, in its ignorance, imagines it. The threshold is not determined by Israelis’ nationalism, racism or some other similarly artificial and dastardly -ism. These elements are as present in Israeli society as in any other, of course, but the continuing refusal of Israelis to carry out the sort of withdrawal they tell pollsters they support is due to a vastly more powerful and resilient concern.

That the BDS movement doesn’t understand this about Israelis makes little difference for Israelis, but is vital for BDS’s own strategy and purpose. A boycott, by definition, is an attempt to hack an opponent’s psyche, to create new perceived costs for undesirable behaviors. Boycotts of Israel will succeed or fail based not on how BDS activists believe Israel benefits from remaining in the West Bank, but on how Israelis believe they are benefiting.

If, for example, Israelis believe their children’s safety is on the line, what possible effect can an economic boycott have? Would any BDS activist risk their own children’s safety to escape someone else’s boycott?

This, for Israelis, is the damning truth behind BDS. If a boycott movement is not driven by any meaningful understanding of its target, what drives it? Average Israelis mostly hear about BDS from their own politicians, since these boycotters do not engage Israelis and so have no control over how their efforts are being presented to the targets of their ire. Indeed, BDS activists seem blissfully unaware that their entire strategy is premised on how Israelis perceive them. With so yawning a gap between BDS’s own self-proclaimed strategy and the knowledge and actions it must take to implement that strategy, Israelis begin to suspect that the whole enterprise is little more than an exercise in bigotry.

The boycotters like to compare their activism to the anti-apartheid activists of the 1970s, a rhetorical conceit that pretends the question being asked of them is whether they are taking a moral stand against occupation. But in its moralizing, the movement avoids the real question being asked of it: how do Israelis actually take the steps being asked of them given the dangers they believe await them on the other side?

Masked operatives from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas terror group, ride vehicles as they commemorate the 30th anniversary of their group, in Gaza City, December 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

And another question: if BDS’s methods cannot change Israelis’ behavior, if their lack of empathy and curiosity about their enemy leaves them bereft of any clear grasp of their own strategy, then what good are they to Palestinians? In BDS’s ignorance is laid bare yet again the deeper Palestinian predicament, the one that sustains the imbalance with Israel: their continuing unwillingness to grapple seriously and strategically with the hard and unpleasant fact of Israel’s permanence.

The battle between Israel and BDS is one of those political fictions that only make sense if you don’t look at them too closely. In the end, BDS is fighting an Israel that only exists in its imagination. It is not curious enough, not serious enough, or perhaps simply too innately prejudiced, to take up the much harder challenge of seeking to affect the real living society whose behaviors it ostensibly seeks to change.

Of course, that’s not a moral defense of Israel. Even if Israel really is as bad as BDS claims, and even if it is worse, that doesn’t change the point that BDS is not really interested enough in what drives Israeli behavior to construct the strategic capabilities to begin to change it. BDS is thus an exercise whose ultimate end is its means; it seeks not political reform, but the exclusion itself — a permanent response to an innately perfidious enemy.

And what of Israel’s war against so oafish an enemy? What of that tiny corner of Israeli officialdom that, with unclear purpose, charges so gleefully into this odd battle? Here we find neither the bigotry of BDS nor any great wisdom or understanding. Israel, too, did not set out to battle a real enemy in the real, hard, intimate ways of war, but crafted out of its actual opponent a tailor-made stand-in, constructed for purposes less noble and entirely less interesting than it pretends.

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