The calendar year 2016 was a bad one for BDS, with setbacks at universities and the state level. But the Obama Administration’s unexpected decision to abstain from a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli ‘settlements’ has the potential to dramatically revitalize the BDS movement, particularly in the international arena and the local level. The furious reactions from the US Congress suggests the Obama decision may also prompt withdrawal of American support for the United Nations. This shows how the BDS movement and its underlying antisemitism work to the detriment of international affairs and a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The most significant BDS event in December, and possibly in 2016, was the US decision to abstain from a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli ‘settlements’ as having “no legal validity,” and declaring that it would not recognize any changes to the 1949 Armistice Line (the “1967 border”) including Jerusalem, except those agreed to through negotiations. The resolution defines all territories east of the “Green Line” as “Palestinian.” One clause specifically calls on states to “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”
The Egyptian sponsored resolution was initially withdrawn after intense pressure from Israel and from US President Elect Donald Trump. It was reintroduced the next day by Malaysia, New Zealand, Venezuela and Senegal and the US then abstained from the vote rather than use the its veto. Previous administrations had expressed disapproval of ‘settlements’ but held that their final status was subject to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Evidence also quickly emerged regarding the origins of the resolution. Despite denials, American officials were shown to have met with Palestinian representatives in the weeks prior to the vote, and to have pressured Security Council members, including Ukraine, with Britain and New Zealand also playing roles.
Despite being adopted under Chapter VI of the UN Charter (a recommendation rather than binding as under Chapter VII) the resolution has the potential to dramatically revitalize the BDS movement, which has suffered numerous defeats in 2016. Since the resolution cannot be repealed without a vote of the Security Council, it carries the purported moral weight of the United Nations as the voice of the international community.
Those defending Israel and a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, and opposing BDS, will now face the argument that the United Nations has ‘decided that the West Bank is occupied Palestinian territory.’ Palestinians will be further disincentivized from conducting negotiations, and encouraged to intensify both diplomatic moves and violence against Israel.
The resolution also potentially exposes Israeli citizens and institutions to lawfare, including lawsuits in the International Criminal Court and to boycott and labeling efforts, such as those promoted by the United Nations Human Rights Council, European Union, individual European states, numerous NGOs, and corporate entities. Israeli enterprises such as banks, corporations, and universities that conduct business on both sides of the “Green Line” they may now face sanctions. US-based organizations with similar relationships, including charities, may face similar issues. Individuals may face threats of blacklisting or legal action on the basis of their places of residence or work.
Institutionally, the ‘differentiation clause’ that calls on states to “distinguish, in their relevant dealings” between Israeli entities within the pre-1967 “borders” may also limit foreign interaction with Israeli government entities such as the Justice Ministry and National Police, which have their headquarters in Jerusalem.
Informally, the Security Council resolution will be extremely damaging; it will be used at the local level, by politicians, stores (and individual clerks), academic associations and university committees, NGOs and church groups, and a myriad of others uninterested in legal details, as means to discriminate against Israelis and supporters of Israel.
The BDS movement and Palestinian leaders from both Fatah and Hamas voiced their approval, the latter seeing the resolution as vindication of their ‘internationalization’ strategy, and indicated they would seek international legal actions against Israelis and sanctions against Israel. Palestinian leaders also forcefully rejected US Secretary of State John Kerry’s parameters regarding refugees, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and sharing Jerusalem.
The Obama Administration initially offered convoluted defenses of the resolution, stating its frustration over the “settlement enterprise” and claiming “We would have vetoed any resolution that we thought sought to impose a solution that sought to impose a view on the final status issue.”
In reality, the resolution imposes a precise view regarding the final status of borders and “settlements,” and undermines widely accepted notions of land swaps, core principles behind the Oslo Accords. These were articulated (and also contradicted) in Kerry’s speech. Unconfirmed reports suggest additional Security Council moves, orchestrated by the US and France, will be undertaken before 20 January. The resolution, American role, and Kerry’s speech were widely condemned by editorial boards, Jewish organizations, and elected representatives from both parties.
Beyond the BDS arena, the Obama Administration’s decisions exacerbated splits within the Democratic Party, particularly with Jewish lawmakers and voters, and within the Jewish community, where only J Street and Americans for Peace Now offered support for the administration. Even more significantly, in response to the resolution Republican Congressmen and the incoming Trump Administration have begun moves to reduce or eliminate funding for the United Nations. These threats are still nebulous but could dramatically reshape the American relationship with that institution and the international system. Somewhat incongruously, Kerry’s speech was furiously criticized by Britain, which had voted for the Security Council resolution.
In response to the resolution, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspending working ties with countries that had voted for the resolution, (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Japan, Ukraine, Angola, Egypt, Uruguay, Spain, Senegal, and New Zealand) and recalled ambassadors, summoned the American ambassador, canceled the visit of the Ukrainian Foreign Minister to Israel, halted a foreign aid program in Senegal, and ordered a reassessment of all Israeli engagement with the United Nations. Other observers predicted that the resolution would backfire by encouraging the Israeli ‘settlement movement.’
In academia the year ended with few victories for the BDS movement, considerably bad publicity, and a continued shift toward ‘intersectional’ alliances (or hijackings) of more popular movements, such as ‘Black Lives Matter,’ the Dakota Access Pipeline, ethical university investment policies, and now anti-Trump protests.
Another trend are petulant displays. At Ryerson University the student government considered a proposal to condemn antisemitism and condemn the Holocaust but debate was then subverted by a walkout of students who had attended the meeting in order to thwart it. Later reporting indicated that the president of the student government, an anti-Israel activist, had orchestrated both the high attendance and the walkout.
A similar display occurred at Columbia University, where the local Students for Justice in Palestine chapter orchestrated a walkout during an ‘indigenous peoples’ event organized by a pro-Israel group. New threats by Palestine Legal, SJP’s legal support arm, against Kent State for not removing a “threatening” portrait of Golda Meir and for failing to protect students from “a network of well-funded Zionists” also showed how petulance quickly evolves beyond mere inconvenience into lawfare. A traditional BDS tactic was used at the University of Manchester, where a BDS resolution was adopted after springing “out of nowhere.”
More substantively, three BDS resolutions will be voted on in January at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA). The proposals were put to the Delegate Assembly (effectively the organization’s business meeting) by the “MLA Members for Justice in Palestine”, which is comprised of many BDS stalwarts responsible for similar proposals in other organizations. If approved the resolutions will go to the general membership.
The proposals call on the MLA to “endorse and honor the call” of the BDS movement, which arguably means participating the boycott of Israeli institutions, organizations, and scholars. In response, the MLA has been warned that it faces legal challenges to its tax-exempt status if it adopts the BDS resolutions in violation of its institutional charter, as well as state and local non-discrimination laws.
Elsewhere in the political sphere, an anti-BDS bill in Ohio passed and was signed by the governor. The local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union bill opposed the bill. Similar bills have been introduced in Texas and Nevada.
The US Senate also passed by unanimous consent the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. The bill directs the Department of Education to use the State Department’s definition of antisemitism, which includes anti-Israel criteria such as demonization, double standards, and delegitimization, in determining whether campus actions against Jews and supporters of Israel violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill, which was opposed by free speech advocates and the BDS movement, stalled in the House of Representatives but is expected to be reintroduced in 2017.
In the international sphere, the Norwegian city of Tromso adopted a resolution to boycott goods from Israeli “settlements, ” joining the city of Trondheim. In contrast, the Ontario legislature adopted a resolution rejecting BDS. The ruling German Christian Democratic party also passed a resolution declaring the BDS movement antisemitic.
More contradictorily, British Prime Minister Theresa May denounced the BDS movement in a speech to a Conservative Party pro-Israel group and the government adopted the International Holocaust Alliance’s definition of antisemitism that resemble the US State Department’s guidelines. Her government then voted in favor of the Security Council resolution, then May excoriated Kerry’s follow-up speech.