The modern boycott, divestment and sanctions movement originated with 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, known as Durban II. The “Durban Strategy” of isolating and vilifying Israel has propagated through non-governmental organizations, academia and media. But economic boycotts directed at Israel began with the Arab League in 1945. While the cultural dimension of BDS is organizationally distinct and receives more publicity, the economic dimension is potentially more significant. The latter dimension came very much to the forefront in February, as did intersections between the two.
BDS developments in February continued to show that threats and fears of boycotts by European entities are being used as political tools.
At the Munich Security Forum US Secretary of State John Kerry, currently engaged in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, echoed earlier comments and stated that “Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary… You see for Israel, there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things.”
Several Israeli politicians, including Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, characterized Kerry’s remarks as “economic threats.“ Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz called Kerry’s comments “unfair” and “intolerable” and complained “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head.” Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely complained , “Kerry’s unprecedented threats of a boycott are an attempt to terrorize Israel and force it into an agreement that opposes the government’s position. Such an agreement would endanger Israel more than any economic boycott.”
In a sign that Kerry’s comments and the boycott issue are being taken seriously at the highest political levels, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that “Attempts to impose a boycott on the State of Israel are immoral and unjust. Moreover, they will not achieve their goal. First, they cause the Palestinians to adhere to their intransigent positions and thus push peace further away. Second, 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.”
But the negative Israeli responses to Kerry’s remarks prompted equally negative comments from US officials. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice called Israeli reactions “unfounded and unacceptable.” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stated Kerry “expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements” but added the next day that Kerry “has consistently been opposed to any form of boycott,” and that “There is no greater advocate – or opponent, I should say, to boycotts or proponent of Israel’s security and their future.”
These unusual exchanges demonstrate that US officials, (including Kerry who may have been thinking out loud in Munich and earlier occasions), are using Israeli concerns regarding economic boycotts (which are illegal under US law) as pressure during ongoing negotiations. Simultaneously rejecting Israeli criticism of American statements while claiming the US does not and would not support boycotts suggests a pattern of exerting calibrated pressure on Israeli decision-makers and the public, splitting the political left and right, while attempting to disarm American supporters of Israel in the same way. Reports from Europe, however, suggest the American strategy, by design or by accident, is giving tacit license to escalating boycott moves.
The European Union’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, stated the matter bluntly “If the talks are wrecked as a result of an Israeli settlement announcement, then the blame will be put squarely on Israel’s doorstep, naturally and logically [Israel] will be to blame… If Israel continues to expand its presence beyond the Green Line, without a peace agreement being signed, it will find itself increasingly isolated… Not necessarily because of any decisions taken at a government level but because of decisions taken by a myriad of private economic actors, be it companies, be it pension funds, be it consumers who will be choosing other product on the supermarket shelves.”
The carefully constructed statement preemptively shifts blame onto Israel but ascribes European boycott decisions to “private economic actors” rather than governments. Confirming Faaborg-Andersen’s assessment, European Parliament President Martin Schulz stated while on a visit to Israel “There is no boycott. In the European Parliament there is for sure not a majority for a potential boycott” but added “Israel’s problem is with the [European] business sector.” On a recent state visit to Israel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to clarify the issue by distinguishing boycotts, which described as “not an option for Germany,” from labeling of products from Israeli community in the “West Bank.”
As if to illustrate the process, Danish and Swedish banks have requested “clarification” from leading Israeli banks regarding operations in the “West Bank.” Denmark’s Bank Danske reportedly placed an Israeli bank on a blacklist despite the fact that it had no business dealings with the Israeli firm. Both moves were criticized by the US State Department. It was later revealed than Bank Danske had helped finance a North Korean trading company accused of financing missile sales to Iran.
In separate developments, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund reportedly blacklisted two Israeli companies with operations in the “West Bank. Two European firms also withdrew bids to construct ports in Israel. This was characterized as a result of BDS pressure but may have been a function of larger-scale relations with Arab countries. At the same time, a Dutch pension fund, ABP, announced that it saw no reason to terminate relations with Israeli banks, and Germany’s Deutsche Bank denied a report had flagged an Israeli bank as a “morally questionable investment.” The Dutch healthcare pension fund PFZW, which divested holdings in five Israeli banks in January, announced it would conduct a “very extensive” review of the move. This followed reports that showed leaders of the fund and the management company were involved in pro-Palestinian organizations, some of which had lobbied extensively for divestment.
These and other developments are having an effect on the Israeli political process. Commenting on the changing boycott environment, Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid stated that failure of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority would prompt the cancellation of trade agreements with the European Union. This would dramatically harm Israel’s GDP, reducing exports to Europe by 20% while increasing unemployment, figures that are disputed by other Israeli analysts. Lapid’s statement, which was aimed at influencing Israeli politics, brought denials from European representatives. His comments were echoed by Knesset member Nachman Shai who warned of an economic tsunami” and that boycotts have “passed the point of no return.”
Another sign that BDS is being taken seriously by Israeli leaders was a speech by Netanyahu to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem. Netanyahu characterized BDS supporters as “classical anti-Semites in modern garb” and went on to say “In the past, anti-Semites boycotted Jewish businesses and today they call for the boycott of the Jewish state. And by the way, only the Jewish state,” he said. “Now don’t take my word for it. The founders of the BDS movement make their goals perfectly clear. They want to see the end of the Jewish state. They’re quite explicit about it.”
Netanyahu’s statements in February regarding boycotts were not the only indications that Israel and the organized Jewish community has begun to see BDS as a threat. It was also announced in December that real estate magnate Mortimer Zukerman would lead a BDS taskforce for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. This revived group will join other efforts by the American Jewish community, notably the Israel Action Network, a joint project of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
But Israeli observers are increasingly split over whether BDS poses a real threat to Israel, with ongoing or future economic and social impacts, or whether such fears are significantly exaggerated. These divisions, characteristic of Israeli opinions on many different issues, indicate the problem of BDS is rapidly being internalized by Israeli society, especially elites and the intelligentsia. Israeli commentators on BDS in the future will likely be split along already familiar political, economic and cultural lines. This growing politicization will make it harder in the future to assess the real state of BDS-related developments.
The controversy surrounding actress Scarlett Johansson’s endorsement of SodaStream demonstrated the intersection of the economic and cultural aspects of BDS. After Johansson’s SodaStream ad appeared during Super Bowl there was also a brief but intense period of interest (including by an American Presbyterian group, whose church is embroiled in a major BDS controversy) in conditions for Palestinian workers at the SodaStream factory, located in Mishor Adumim outside of Jerusalem. Articles in leading newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor, not usually known for positive coverage of Israel, indicated that Palestinian workers were treated well and were grateful for employment opportunities provided by SodaStream. Also unusual were stories discussing the potential impact of boycotts against Israel on the Palestinian economy. The attitudes of Palestinian workers contrasted sharply with those of BDS supporters such as Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters, who continued to assail Johansson.
Johansson also resigned from her role as an “ambassador” for the British charity Oxfam. That organization had previously expressed concern regarding Johansson’s work for SodaStream, given its stated support for boycott of Israeli communities in the “West Bank,” which it distinguishes from the BDS movement as a whole. Oxfam accepted her resignation saying that “Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador.”
But while Oxfam now states that it only supports boycotting Israeli communities in the “West Bank” reports quickly emerged that Oxfam branches had donated funds to BDS groups and had worked with two Palestinian groups linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. When challenged Oxfam characterized this as ‘partnering’ and stated “We value the independence of our partners and we do not expect our grantees to agree with us on all policy issues. We do not provide our partners with funding for promotion of the BDS movement, or activities that call for the boycott of Israel.”
Reports subsequently also revealed that Oxfam has received large-scale support from the Coca-Cola Company, a SodaStream competitor, for numerous projects. Some observers suggested that Oxfam’s opposition to SodaStream was based partially in self-interest.
The Waters and Oxfam case help point to the essentially elite nature of the cultural BDS campaign, which is constituted of Palestinian intellectuals and Western supporters drawn from academia, NGO, entertainment and related sectors. Practical support for BDS by the Palestinian public appears minimal. The influence of BDS on the European public and decision-makers, however, especially through the means of NGOs, academia and journalism, cannot be understated.
In contrast, for the moment American openness to BDS is remains limited. This was indicated for example by the powerfully negative response to the American Studies Association pro-BDS resolution in late 2013, and that organization’s supporters resort to name-calling, special pleading, and secrecy. A recent example was need for the president-elect of the American Studies Association to ask supporters to not publicize an anti-Israel conference held at New York University. Anti-boycott legislation in various state legislatures and the House of Representatives also continues to be developed.
At the same time, the treatment of BDS by elite media, such as the New York Times, which ran several pro-BDS opinion pieces in February without comment, limited balance, and which criticized efforts to limit academic boycotts but not boycotts themselves, cannot be overlooked. The impact of BDS on American campuses, where “Israel Apartheid Week” is beginning, also remains especially significant.
Finally, reports indicate that the Rolling Stones will perform in Israel in June. A Facebook page condemning the group for agreeing to perform in Israel appeared but was then alleged by BDS supporters have been a hoax. Recent performances by Deep Purple and scheduled performances by Neil Young, Lady Gaga and others indicate that the BDS movement’s influence on the music industry also remains limited.