When it comes to tackling BDS, Israel is all talk, no action
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Analysis

When it comes to tackling BDS, Israel is all talk, no action

Despite their passionate rhetoric, MKs are using the latest uptick of boycotts for domestic political point-scoring, while the government’s counter-effort is dysfunctionally divided between two rival ministries, with almost no staff

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

Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011 (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)
Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011 (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)

After seven months of electioneering and coalition negotiations that essentially froze the business of government, Israel’s leaders seemed to find their voice this week.

As the mobile phone giant Orange decided to pull out of Israel in a move it said was “not political,” but which its CEO suggested (before apparently backtracking) was linked to efforts to boycott Israel, and as Palestinian motions at FIFA briefly threatened to boot Israel out of world soccer, Israeli politicians — in the Knesset and cabinet alike –launched a torrent of denunciations against the boycotters and their supporters.

“The State of Israel was established while struggling against the Arab boycott,” President Reuven Rivlin said Thursday. “The declarations of boycotts today are no different in their motivation than they were then.” That is, their goal is Israel’s elimination, not a change in West Bank policy.

“This absurd drama will not be forgiven,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added on Thursday in his third statement in three days on boycott efforts, this one directed at Orange. “I call on the French government to publicly repudiate the miserable statement and miserable action by a company that is under its partial ownership. At the same time, I call on our friends to unconditionally declare – in a loud and clear voice – that they oppose any kind of boycott of the state of the Jews.”

‘After six years of earnest pronunciations, the Strategic Affairs Ministry is staffed by no more than half a dozen employees, and only two of them are charged with addressing BDS’

On Wednesday, a Knesset debate on Tuesday’s British student union vote to boycott Israel quickly turned into one of the most vehement and startling shouting matches the parliament has seen in some time.

“A widespread campaign of delegitimization is underway against the State of Israel,and against its existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” declared Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked from the Knesset podium.

“The purpose of this campaign is not simply to influence one particular Israeli policy or another, but to blacken Israel’s name, to harm its vital interests and ability to defend itself,” she insisted heatedly, “and in the end to terminate its existence as a Jewish and democratic state. This is a campaign rooted in disinformation, lies and threats, which strives to depict Israel as the source of all evil in the world, just as anti-Semitism did to the Jews in the past.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked addresses the Knesset, June 3, 2015 (Screen capture: The Knesset Channel via Walla)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked addresses the Knesset, June 3, 2015 (Screen capture: The Knesset Channel via Walla)

“This is anti-Semitism in a new guise,” she nearly shouted, “with the same symptoms of anti-Semitism. The old anti-Semitism dehumanized the Jews, and now that’s being done to the state of the Jews.” The campaign “doesn’t want to divide the country, but to erase it.”

“Open your eyes and ears,” Shaked demanded, pointedly glancing at the left-wing Meretz party lawmakers seated in the plenum.

But the increasingly strident rhetoric was not limited to the right.

“We can’t stand your pretense of victimhood,” Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-on told Shaked with a dismissive wave from the podium. “You can relax already” with the thinly veiled accusations against the left, Gal-on went on, “because it is the Netanyahu government that works in the service of the boycott.”

Fellow Meretz lawmaker Michal Rozin explained: “The way to deal with the growing isolation of Israel is not through advocacy, but by ending the occupation. The government must internalize that the boycott is a wake-up call, not anti-Semitic propaganda against Israel. Is the continued support for settlements worth the demolition of Israel’s standing as a legitimate nation in the world?”

Walking the walk

A casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that this rhetorical surge about the BDS threat in recent days — or as Netanyahu’s 2014 address to AIPAC suggests, in recent years — reflects a new seriousness on the part of Israeli leaders to address the issue.

Indeed, there is now a cabinet minister, Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan wearing his second hat as strategic affairs minister, who is formally charged by a cabinet decision last year with handling the government’s efforts on the issue.

Yet the impassioned rhetoric, and even the NIS 100 million ($26 million) promised to the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s efforts in last year’s cabinet decision, contrast starkly with the fact of Israel’s almost complete inaction on the issue.

Gilad Erdan, May 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Gilad Erdan, May 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Erdan plans to build some form of planning staff to tackle BDS and efforts at delegitimizing Israel, according to insiders, but that ostensible ambition is only the latest in a string of similar declarations of intent from each of his predecessors in the Strategic Affairs Ministry.

In 2009, the strategic affairs portfolio, then held by Likud minister Moshe Ya’alon (now the defense minister), began piecing together a far-reaching plan, led by ex-IDF brigadier-general Yossi Kuperwasser, to build a strategic planning staff that would meaningfully upgrade the state’s capacity to study and tackle the BDS threat internationally. Similar ideas were bandied about in the last government, when the ministry was headed by current Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz.

The State of Israel’s anti-BDS efforts consist of three, perhaps four officials split between a Foreign Ministry formally stripped of responsibility for the issue and a virtually nonexistent Strategic Affairs Ministry with scarcely a part-time minister

And here is the result of those six years of earnest pronunciations: the Strategic Affairs Ministry currently is staffed by no more than half a dozen employees all told — in the entire ministry — and only two of them are in some way charged with addressing BDS.

The Foreign Ministry, too, has an official tasked with dealing with the boycott campaign, but the ministry is hampered by the fact that it was formally stripped of responsibility for the issue when it was transferred in the last government to strategic affairs. The Foreign Ministry’s situation is especially absurd, since it is Israel’s ambassadors abroad who usually find themselves the only state employees capable of tracking and responding to boycott efforts overseas, yet they are severed from whatever staff work or support officials in Jerusalem might be able to offer because it is now handled in a separate ministry.

And that’s it. The State of Israel’s anti-BDS efforts consist of three, perhaps four officials split between a Foreign Ministry formally stripped of responsibility for the issue and a virtually nonexistent Strategic Affairs Ministry with scarcely a part-time minister. And, of course, the diplomats, the far-flung, underpaid emissaries of the Jewish state left to their own devices by a political class that has failed to match action to rhetoric.

It is possible, of course, that the nation’s supremely capable intelligence services are quietly addressing BDS, but the constant state of surprise Israeli leaders evince as each new boycott effort reaches the headlines, and the fact that no politician seems to know in any detail who stands behind these efforts, suggest that either Israeli intelligence is not engaged with the issue at all, that it does not prioritize it enough to enable political leaders to appear more prepared, or that the Mossad and its sister institutions are simply less competent than is commonly believed. There are reasons to believe that the truth is very close to the first option.

Assumptions

Why is the gap between rhetoric and action so vast? For one thing, the BDS threat has become an irresistible bludgeon used by both right and left to attack each other. The enthusiasm with which Israeli politicians talk about the issue — Yair Lapid, Yaakov Peri, Danny Danon, Ahmad Tibi, Miri Regev; the list of politicians who opined on it this week is long indeed — is driven by each side’s insistence that the other is harming the country. In these domestic quarrels, each side has a clear interest in magnifying the threat, and very little interest in suggesting what might be done to lessen it.

In terms of domestic politics, each side has a clear interest in magnifying the threat, and very little interest in suggesting what might be done to lessen it

It is difficult in an after-the-fact report from Wednesday’s Knesset debate about the British student union boycott to fully convey the incessant shouting and derisive mockery that punctuated nearly every speaker’s comments. Or the obvious fact that even as they shouted across the parliamentary chamber, it was clear to many lawmakers that both Rozin and Shaked were engaging in domestic politics first and in foreign policy as a distant second.

The Knesset plenum, May 13, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The Knesset plenum, May 13, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Shaked’s decision to address the Knesset on Wednesday — the agenda item was put forward by left-wing MKs who asked Erdan to respond; Shaked stood in for Erdan — combined with her vociferous media-ready speech and direct challenge to left-wing lawmakers laid bare the role that BDS, at least as Israeli politicians imagine it, plays in national politics.

The right long ago realized that the BDS effort is an electoral boon. With its stridency, double standards and plentiful examples of openly anti-Semitic supporters and participants, it doesn’t take much to depict the BDS movement to Israelis as little more than ugly prejudice — and to depict the Israeli left, as it agonizes over the continued occupation, as its enablers.

The left, meanwhile, having failed in recent years to convince Israelis they can trust Palestinian politicians to reciprocate an Israeli withdrawal with peace, has taken up the BDS threat as a new message, arguing that the alternative to dangerous territorial withdrawals — isolation, boycott, delegitimization — is even more dangerous.

Wednesday’s back-and-forth in parliament offered exquisite examples of the two narratives in direct confrontation, and demonstrated why the right may be the overall winner in any Israeli debate over BDS.

Meretz MK Michal Rozin attends a committee meeting in the Knesset, November 26, 2013 (photo credit: Flash 90)
Meretz MK Michal Rozin (photo credit: Flash 90)

Rozin’s assertion that Israel must choose “settlements or legitimacy” makes an assumption that no poll of Israeli public opinion for the past decade and a half can support: that Israel’s foot-dragging on peace talks is about settlements.

Rather, countless polls in recent years point to a majority of Israelis who support territorial compromise in principle — but have concluded after the disastrous outcomes of withdrawal in Gaza and south Lebanon that it is not safe to do so anytime soon.

Whether this view is right or wrong is beside the point here; it is this belief that, according to all available data, now keeps a majority of Israelis, and thus Israeli leaders, from supporting the surrendering of much of the West Bank to a Palestinian state.

But the other half of Rozin’s equation — Israel’s threatened “legitimacy” — also fails to convince most Israelis.

Illustrative photo of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, December 17, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The West Bank settlement of Efrat, December 17, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

After all, for the threat of delegitimization to succeed in changing Israeli behavior and policy, it must overpower not some imagined appetite in the Israeli political mainstream for ever more West Bank hilltops, but the measurable and widespread Israeli belief that those hilltops, once abandoned, will become staging grounds for attacks on Israeli population centers. Even assuming it is possible to convince a nation that its “legitimacy” is something that can be taken away from it — a strange assertion, when one thinks about it — is it really reasonable to suggest that this loss can ever loom larger in the Israeli voting public’s calculations than the very real threat of attack reified repeatedly in the most recent Gaza and Lebanon conflicts?

Once again, polls suggest that while most Israelis are aware of the campaign to isolate the country in the international community, it has not made them more willing to cede the West Bank highlands.

The right grasps better than Meretz how weak the latter’s arguments sound to Israelis, but finds it useful to repeat and magnify the importance of these arguments for its own political gain. The opportunity is almost too good to miss. In Meretz’s dismissal of BDS as “not anti-Semitic,” and its warning that it is the inevitable and intolerable cost of occupation, the deep left has openly pinned its hopes for the implementation of its political program on a bigotry-tinged campaign of harassment against Israel and Israelis — a campaign that in the Israeli left’s telling will only end with an Israeli territorial withdrawal that most Israelis profoundly believe would compromise their safety. Here is the left, in other words, callously threatening the nation with harm while appearing to ignore Israelis’ deep-seated conviction that their security is at stake.

Again, whether Meretz’s warning is substantively accurate or not is not the point here; it suffers fatally from the way it is being made – and received – in Israeli political discourse.

A Palestinian man walks by a grafitti sign calling to boycott Israel seen in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, February 11, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A Palestinian man walks by a grafitti sign urging a boycott of Israel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, February 11, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yet the right also wields the BDS bogeyman in ways that address neither the substantive threat nor the fears and aspirations of Israelis.

The right wins Israeli elections because of the widespread distrust of further withdrawal, not because the public has adopted the far-right’s vision of permanent annexation of the West Bank as its preferred conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For annexationists in Jewish Home, then, the left’s self-made traps are an immensely helpful diversion, allowing Shaked to effectively argue that the hate-filled boycotters of BDS are the most significant challengers Israel faces on the Palestinian issue, rather than more mainstream and less ignorable institutions like the American president or the European Union’s largest scientific cooperation fund.

This also allowed Shaked to effectively disregard any middle ground within Israel between far-left Meretz and far-right Jewish Home. As long as the debate is depicted as one between those who defend Israel and those who despise it, Shaked is freed from having to address the thorny fact, shown just as consistently in the polling over the years, that Israelis actually want to separate territorially from the Palestinians – and that Shaked and her party do not.

Self-reliance

Is the rhetoric of concern, then, completely fake, a function of domestic political maneuvering, or do Israeli leaders really believe the issue is an important one? And if it’s the latter, why does a state that can build one of the world’s most capable armies seem unable to assemble a meaningful strategic effort against this new threat?

To defend Israel in the court of world opinion seemed to concede that the world’s opinion mattered, and thus to reinstate the sense of dependence on others that generations of Zionists viewed as the debased condition of the long-suffering diaspora Jew

Among the peculiar cultural traits that characterize the Israeli political and military elite is a longstanding, widespread belief in a hierarchy of respectability when it comes to strategic threats. Some threats are more valid and worthy of engagement than others, according to this prejudice.

For decades, leaders steeped in this view took pride in disdaining the disciplines of diplomacy, advocacy and public relations, and the very idea that explaining oneself to the world might constitute an important element of national strategy.

There is a nobility to piloting a jet fighter or leading infantrymen into battle, this sensibility suggests. The covert wars of the Mossad, too, seem serious, full as they are of countless acts of unrequited devotion by men and women who quietly do, rather than talk. But in the panoply of Israel’s foreign affairs and defense apparatuses, those who talked for a living, the diplomats and spokespeople who defended Israeli policy or Israel’s very existence to the world, have always fallen outside this circle of respectability.

A surfer watches an Israeli Air Force aerial acrobatics demonstration on the country's 67th Independence Day at a Tel Aviv beach, April 23, 2015. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)
A surfer watches an Israeli Air Force aerial acrobatics demonstration on the country’s 67th Independence Day at a Tel Aviv beach, April 23, 2015. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

The roots of this disdain reach deep into the Israeli psyche and experience. While the physical defense of Israel was seen by generations of Israeli founding fathers and warrior-leaders as a redemptive act of self-reliance, the rhetorical defense of the Jewish state seemed the very opposite. To defend Israel in the court of world opinion seemed to concede that the world’s opinion mattered, and thus to reinstate, however faintly, the sense of dependence on others that generations of Zionists viewed as the debased condition of the long-suffering diaspora Jew.

This was no minor prejudice. It pervaded Israeli policy for decades, informed the country’s responses to UN censure, American Jewish criticism and Arab rejectionism alike, and all but ensured that Israel’s political class, which proved its genius over the years for both war and institution-building, would never give equal weight or attention to diplomacy and public relations.

That disdain persists, unstated but pervasive, among Israel’s political and military elites today. The neglect of Israel’s diplomatic corps and the sheer indifference at the institutional level to challenges such as BDS and to advocacy more generally flow from this cultural prejudice. Israeli politicians still recoil instinctively from any engagement that appears to concede to the country’s detractors that their opinions, or even the opinions of their audiences, matter to the independent, self-reliant Jewish state.

Even in the face of a global advocacy campaign against the Jewish state, and eager as they are to employ an imagined, magnified version of this enemy to score domestic political points, Israeli leaders have not yet shed the crippling handicap of Zionism’s age-old disdain for explaining itself. And as yet, they offer no indication that they view BDS as a meaningful threat or that they plan to do anything about it.

Boycott Israeli apartheid stickers (Tapash Abu Shaim/Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK via Facebook)
Boycott Israeli apartheid stickers (Tapash Abu Shaim/Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK via Facebook)
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