X: Combating BDS: International Diplomacy
Let’s begin by recognizing that while BDS advocates boycotts, sanctions and divestments, Israel actually appears to enforce boycotts and implement sanctions against both the PA and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. The latter is well known, the former less so. As a case in point, Israel refused in the first four months of last year to transfer tax revenues collected as customs duties on goods transiting Israeli ports destined for territory controlled by the PA. These are legally Palestinian funds. As a result of the 1994 agreement between the PA and Israel, Israel generally transfers tens of millions per month for these custom duties levied on goods transiting the Israeli port destined for the Palestinian market. On several occasions in the past, the transfers were stopped for a month or two. Last year, the boycott lasted four months and the PA had to reduce the pay of civil servants (200,000) to 60% of normal salaries.
There were two reasons offered to rationalize the sanction. The first was political, punishing the PA for using the international legal and diplomatic system against Israel. The cessation in the transfer of funds was allegedly because the Palestinians sought to join the International Court to pursue war crimes charges against Israel. A second reason was economic – a claim for non-payment of long-outstanding electrical and gas bills owed to those respective Israeli utility authorities. The PA sued the Israeli government in an Israeli court. Justice Menahem Mazuz ruled that the Israel government had breached the terms of a contract between the two parties. The duties collected could not be used to pay other debts owing. The ruling also undermined the legality of withholding the funds for political reasons.
After the court ruling, Israel made a large first installment payment towards the past debt by transferring the duties withheld in March and April 2015. Monies withheld from duties collected from December to February were transferred as soon as both parties agreed on the debt owed to the utilities and deducted those monies from the monies owed to the PA. In addition, a joint committee was set up to resolve other claims between the PA and Israel. The above and other issues must be understood within the terms of the Oslo Accords, more specifically, the 1994 Paris Protocol on Economic Relations. It established an effective customs union between Israel and the PA. In contrast, municipal, income and corporate taxes from Israelis and Israeli entities in the settlements were, in accordance with the agreement, collected by Israel and not transferred to the PA, but used to benefit those settlements.
Whereas Israel periodically for short periods sanctions the PA, it boycotts the Hamas government that is not a party to the agreement. Because of the Paris Protocol, most BDF information and efforts have focused on Gaza where the effects of the Israeli boycott are so harsh in reprisal for Hamas rocketing Israel and to prevent Hamas with being resupplied with materials that could be used in its offensive attacks against Israel. Hamas has an ideological determination not simply to tear up the Paris Protocol, but to eliminate Israel as a state.
From the other direction, the PA boycotts the import of settler-made goods primarily through an educational and witness campaign by government leaders. There is no legally sanctioned economic penalty on Palestinians importing, selling and using such goods. Nor are Palestinians who work in Israeli settlements (36,000) penalized. They earn three time what they would earn working in the West Bank but receive no health or pension benefits or unemployment insurance. Many of the 1,000 businesses established in the West Bank are partnerships between Palestinians and Israelis.
BDS has been mostly silent about the work force, but strongly critical of the “educational” and witness campaign of the PA, characterizing it as a meaningless publicity stunt – such as the Karama or Dignity Pledge to boycott settler goods. BDS objects to any normalization of arrangements with Israel and implementation of the Paris Protocol. As a result, the PA denounces the much broader BDS campaign. Abbas has said, “We are not boycotting Israel, because we have agreements and imports from it” and openly endorses the principle of “adherence to signed agreements.”
At the instigation of the PA, in March the United Nations Human Rights Council approved the creation of a database of companies that do business in areas under Israeli occupation by a vote of 32 in favor with 15 countries abstaining. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, slammed the initiative claiming that, “The Human Rights Council has turned into an accomplice of the BDS movement, and its conduct is both anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic.” BDS joined in the criticism, but for very different reasons. Such an action was not extensive and was not a boycott, just an information offering procedure. In November of last year, the EU itself passed a regulation that required an indication of origin label on goods from the occupied territories with enforcement left to the individual states. That regulation required labeling merchandise or food products originating in West Bank or Golan Heights settlements as: “product from the West Bank (Israeli settlement)” or “product from the Golan Heights (Israeli settlement).”
BDS, on the other hand, pushes its boycott, sanctions and divestment strategy “on companies to cease doing business within Israel, to stop selling Israeli products, for international performers not to perform in Israel, for academics to refuse cooperation with Israeli institutions and for cultural institutions to boycott Israeli government-sponsored events aimed at prettifying Israel’s apartheid practices.” The BDS movement insists that it will continue its campaign until Israel ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab land [not just land in the West Bank], recognizes the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and respects, protects and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. This would mean the effective dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state. The return of refugees has never been imposed on any government in the world. The BDS campaign is clearly not just about settlements in the West Bank, but about the very nature and even existence of Israel.
This is not widely recognized as Palestinian sympathizers pick from the smorgasbord of moderate to extreme methods of confronting Israel through sanctions, boycotts and divestments. Israel, in turn, tries to brand BDS as an anti-Zionist movement and not just a critic of Israeli policies. Further, efforts are made to equate that anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and, most recently, with anti-Judaism. I will turn to this topic in my next blog.
I want to finish this blog by documenting the efforts of each side to either confront BDS (Israel) or to bypass BDS (PA) through diplomacy in the global arena, primarily in the United Nations. Like Russia and the U.S. engaged in a renewed lukewarm non-military war, Israel and the PA, whatever their differences on the international stage – and they are at loggerheads on many issues – are both opponents of BDS.
Recently, at the end of May, Israel’s Mission to the United Nations and the World Jewish Congress joined together with a plethora of Jewish organizations in the diaspora in hosting a one day anti-BDS “summit” at the United Nations entitled, “Building Bridges, Not Boycotts.” A strong motivation for organizing the meeting was not just the efforts of BDS. Danny Danon, Israel’s UN ambassador, placed the UN Human Rights Commission in bed with BDS because the former, he declared, decided to blacklist anyone who does business in Judea and Samaria. And that is the Achilles heel of the anti-BDS camp. Instead of dividing those who criticize the settlements from those who would boycott Israeli goods, academic institutions and institute a cultural boycott against Israel, unsurprisingly he put relative moderates, including, in part, the PA, in bed with its enemy, the BDS movement. And he called them both anti-Semitic.
Yesterday evening, I watched the opening of the Republican Convention in Cleveland. The speech of Melania Trump, Donald’s wife, though lacking a few needed intimate anecdotes, and, as revealed quickly afterwards, in part plagiarized Michele Obama’s 2008 Democratic Convention speech, was otherwise superbly crafted and extremely well delivered. Other speeches simply demonized Hillary in a world aflame with mostly extremist Islamicist violence. Speaker after speaker reiterated the theme of making America great and safe again. In contrast, Hillary was portrayed as the devil incarnate, pilloried for her alleged failures and reiterating Donald’s claims that she is a crook. “Lock her up,” they shouted.
“Building Bridges, not Boycotts” (BBnB) was like a Trump rally, a gathering of the converted, of anti-BDS forces of which the vast majority were Jews, 1,500 students, but without the advantage of a single star performer. Jewish reggae singer, Matisyahu, did perform in the morning in the General Assembly Hall. Matisyahu had been targeted himself by BDS and, for a short period in 2015, a Spanish organization cancelled his scheduled appearance before the cancellation was reversed under pressure from the Spanish government. What made BBnB most akin to the first night of the Republican Convention was the effort to totally demonize BDS and all boycotts against Israel as anti-Semitic. The principle of these exercises in a collective harangue seemed to be, keep it simple, paint only in black and white colours and, through repetition after repetition, drive home a single atrocious association with whatever and whoever is being targeted. Of course, it is ironic to compare BBnB to a Trump rally since Trump is bent on building walls not bridges.
Several months earlier, when Danny Danon denounced the UN effort at labelling goods originating in West Bank settlements, he did not differentiate between such efforts and the BDS much wider goals. Further, even these UN efforts were labelled as anti-Semitic. In his speech at the end of May at the BBnB, conference, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN and the main force behind the rally, gave the opening speech and characterized BDS as anti-Semitic. He recalled the passage of the Zionism is Racism motion at the UN forty years earlier and the victory in getting the UN to revoke that motion in 1991. He depicted BDS as a new threat to Israel and the Jewish people based on lies and distortions and hiding behind the mask of human rights and peace activism when it was just a global effort to delegitimize Israel. BDS’s campaign of hatred was the face of modern anti-Semitism, he declared.
Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, elaborated on the reasoning for this. He made the following points:
1. The United Nations was created 70 years ago out of the carnage of World War II. It was created on the broken bones of the Jewish people, with the pledge that the world would never see again the kind of human destruction that the Nazis forced on our people.
2. Today, the UN has singled out the only Jewish State in the world – Israel – with lie, after lie, after lie.
3. We chose to look at an equally dishonest campaign against the Jews – the BDS movement – right here at the United Nations.
4. Those who chose are no longer victims and no longer have to rely on others to protect us; we are no longer ghetto Jews, no longer willing to be quiescent, no longer timid, but new Jews. “And we are absolutely done being quiet! Enough is enough!!!”
5. Enticed by the seduction of fighting for rights, of fighting for justice, those who support BDS do not listen to the BDS chant: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!”
6. Expanding on the theme of BDS as not only anti-Zionist but anti-Semitic, he insisted that the current boycott against the State of Israel is no different from Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism of the 1920s or the Soviet bloc’s anti-Zionism of the 1950s and 60s.
7. BDS is not concerned about the rights of Palestinians, but denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination in the exclusive focus on Israel as distinct from all the other vicious states that abuse of human rights.
It was a rallying speech, not an analytic one. It is not simply a distortion; it is a falsification to say that the UN was created on the broken bones of the Jewish people when the issue for the UN in the aftermath of WWII was not the Holocaust at all but what to do with 250,000 Jewish refugees in Europe that no one wanted. It may be true that the UN has disproportionately, and enormously so, singled out Israel for condemnation, but it is a distortion to suggest – though not actually assert – that Israel is the only state condemned for human rights abuses. Iran and North Korea have both been chastised, and Iran is the only state for Iranians just as Israel is the only Jewish state. Whether true or not – and no documentation was offered to support the thesis – there is the question whether equating UN activities with BDS was diplomatically astute? It would not likely win over strong UN supporters who are not particularly antithetical to Israel and who do not support the wider goals of BDS. The problem was multiplied when Lauder used the old canard that the old Jew was quiet and passive in the face of oppression. BDS may indeed be anti-Zionist as I contend, and possibly anti-Semitic, which I question, but assertion is not the same as argument.
Elyakim Rubinstein, Vice-President of the Israeli Supreme Court Justice and formerly the Attorney General of Israel, took a different path and provided a detailed account of the lawfare fight with BDS in the international legal arena. (See my previous blog.) Further, calling for a boycott of Israel was not protected as a right in the U.S. under the First Amendment. He also characterized BDS as “political terrorism under the guise of freedom of speech.” He came to the same conclusion, that BDS was out to destroy Israel, but did not confuse the labelling issue of goods from the West Bank with the BDS program.
The conference also evidently heard from Mosab Hassan Yousef, now living in the U.S., “The Green Prince” who worked undercover for ten years for Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, from 1997 to 2007. He was the son of Hamas leader, Sheik Hassan, and is credited with hunting down many militants. I could not find his speech on the internet, but in other settings he has excoriated Hamas and claimed BDS was a front for Hamas. On the other hand, a second Palestinian in attendance, Bassam Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, joined the chorus of Jewish speakers who criticized BDS and the Palestinian leadership without distinction.
This theme was echoed in the 30-page guidebook handed out to attendees, but was focused on BDS as a movement of hate accused of being anti-Semitic while characterizing BDS as “all-powerful” with tentacles everywhere in language usually characteristic of anti-Semitic rants against Jews. The booklet stressed the use of state legislatures to boycott entities that boycotted Israel. So if BDS works to delegitimize Israel, this movement headlined in the 31 May 2016 meeting at the UN was focused on delegitimizing BDS. Students were encouraged to contact legislators to make efforts at boycotting academics illegal. And, in contrast to the main thrust of the conference, students were advised to drive a wedge between critics of Israel and BDS delegitimizers of Israel. Label BDS as anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic.
With the help of Alex Zisman