U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's mere mention (or interpreted mention) of the 'boycott, divestment, and sanctions' (or BDS) campaign targeting the continued occupation of the West Bank was enough to set off a barrage of angry responses from Israeli officials and lawmakers over the weekend, creating new diplomatic tensions as Kerry continues to push a U.S.-brokered peace accord between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
While speaking about the ongoing negotiations in Germany on Saturday, Kerry stated: "The risks are very high for Israel. People are talking about boycott. That will intensify in the case of failure. We all have a strong interest in this conflict resolution. Today's status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100%, cannot be maintained. It's not sustainable. It's illusionary. There's a momentary prosperity, there's a momentary peace."
Mention of 'boycotts'—widely interpreted as meaning the international BDS movement which calls on companies, individuals and other parties to refuse to interact with Israeli entities that operate in the occupied territories and condemns what it sees as policies of apartheid by the Israeli government—met with swift rebuke by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli lawmakers.
For his part, Netanyahu called the international boycott movement both "immoral and unjust" and said: "No pressure will cause me to concede the vital interests of the State of Israel, especially the security of Israel's citizens. For both of these reasons, threats to boycott the State of Israel will not achieve their goal."
And according to the Associated Press:
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz of Netanyahu's Likud party said Israel can't be expected "to conduct negotiations with a gun pointed to its head," calling Kerry's comments offensive.
Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, from the religious, pro-settler Jewish Home party, suggested Kerry was siding with Israel's foes. "We expect our friends around the world to stand beside us, against anti-Semitic boycott efforts targeting Israel, and not for them to be their amplifier," said Bennett, a fierce critic of the Kerry-led talks.
However, Avishai Braverman, a senior Israeli economist and member of the opposition Labor Party, said Israeli leaders should take Kerry's warnings to heart.
"If Israel doesn't move forward in the peace process, it would be very severe for the long-term economic future of the country," said Braverman, a former World Bank economist.
Later, a statement from the State Department tried to recalibrate Kerry's initial statement, saying that the secretary in no way supports the idea of the boycott and that his remarks were misinterpreted.
"Secretary Kerry has always expected opposition and difficult moments in the process, but he also expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements," said Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesperson.
But on Monday, as NewsMax reports, Israeli hardliners were not backing down:
"It is sad to see that the US administration does not understand the reality of the Middle East and exerts pressure on the wrong side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Gilad Erdan, Minister for Home Front Defence and a close associate of Netanyahu.
"I would have liked John Kerry to explain to (Palestinian president) Mahmud Abbas what is likely to happen if he continues to refuse to make peace," he told public radio.
Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the far-right Jewish Home party, which opposes a two-state solution to the conflict, told army radio that in raising the threat of a boycott, Kerry was not being "an honest broker" in the negotiations.
Since January 1, the European Union has blocked all grants and funding to Israeli entities operating beyond the pre-1967 war lines, sparking growing alarm in Israel.
Over the weekend, in a New York Times op-ed, Omar Bargouti—who helps lead the international BDS campaign and has written extensively on the issue—explained some of the origins of the movement and why he thinks the Israeli government is so fearful of it. To quote him at length:
Begun in 2005 by the largest trade union federations and organizations in Palestinian society, B.D.S. calls for ending Israel’s 1967 occupation, “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands from which they were forcibly displaced and dispossessed in 1948.
Why should Israel, a nuclear power with a strong economy, feel so vulnerable to a nonviolent human rights movement?
Israel is deeply apprehensive about the increasing number of American Jews who vocally oppose its policies — especially those who are joining or leading B.D.S. campaigns. It also perceives as a profound threat the rising dissent among prominent Jewish figures who reject its tendency to speak on their behalf, challenge its claim to be the “national home” of all Jews, or raise the inherent conflict between its ethno-religious self-definition and its claim to democracy. What I. F. Stone prophetically wrote about Israel back in 1967, that it was “creating a kind of moral schizophrenia in world Jewry” because of its “racial and exclusionist” ideal, is no longer beyond the pale.
Israel is also threatened by the effectiveness of the nonviolent strategies used by the B.D.S. movement, including its Israeli component, and by the negative impact they have had on Israel’s standing in world public opinion. As one Israeli military commander said in the context of suppressing Palestinian popular resistance to the occupation, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.”
The landslide vote by the American Studies Association in December to endorse an academic boycott of Israel, coming on the heels of a similar decision by the Association for Asian-American Studies, among others, as well as divestment votes by several university student councils, proves that B.D.S. is no longer a taboo in the United States.
The movement’s economic impact is also becoming evident. The recent decision by the $200 billion Dutch pension fund PGGM to divest from the five largest Israeli banks because of their involvement in occupied Palestinian territory has sent shock waves through the Israeli establishment.
To underscore the “existential” danger that B.D.S. poses, Israel and its lobby groups often invoke the smear of anti-Semitism, despite the unequivocal, consistent position of the movement against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. This unfounded allegation is intended to intimidate into silence those who criticize Israel and to conflate such criticism with anti-Jewish racism.
Arguing that boycotting Israel is intrinsically anti-Semitic is not only false, but it also presumes that Israel and “the Jews” are one and the same. This is as absurd and bigoted as claiming that a boycott of a self-defined Islamic state like Saudi Arabia, say, because of its horrific human rights record, would of necessity be Islamophobic.
The B.D.S. movement’s call for full equality in law and policies for the Palestinian citizens of Israel is particularly troubling for Israel because it raises questions about its self-definition as an exclusionary Jewish state. Israel considers any challenge to what even the Department of State has criticized as its system of “institutional, legal and societal discrimination” against its Palestinian citizens as an “existential threat,” partially because of the apartheid image that this challenge evokes.