Nuisance or threat? BDS debate dominates U.S. Jewish leaders’ Israel visit

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to visiting leaders from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on Feb. 17, 2014. Credit: Flash90.

By Alex Traiman/JNS.org

The ongoing debate on how to respond to persistent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) efforts by the Jewish state’s detractors—or what one official described as the “nuisance versus threat dilemma”—took center stage during this week’s visit to Israel by American Jewish leaders.

Several government ministers and advisors, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, commented extensively on the issue during addresses to the annual visiting delegation of members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“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,” Netanyahu said. “I think that it is important that the boycotters be exposed for what they are. They are classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”

Netanyahu called for Israel to “delegitimize the delegitimizers.”

While BDS is attracting more attention from both media and Israeli officials, it is not clear that the campaign has been successful, or that Israel is taking concrete steps to eliminate BDS efforts.

“I’m not sure that there is a change of policy concerning BDS,” Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told JNS.org.

“I think that Netanyahu and others have always stated that we have to take this seriously.  I think that for the visit of the Conference of Presidents, this is an important issue for Israeli leaders to address, and it is a good issue for American Jewry to mobilize and fight against. After they go home, we will likely go back to business as usual,” he said.

BDS efforts have received increased media attention in recent weeks. Actress Scarlett Johansson recently resigned as global ambassador of the NGO Oxfam International after the group expressed concern that she was representing the beverage-carbonation company SodaStream, which employs both Jews and Palestinians at a Maale Adumin factory situated over the Green Line, minutes outside Jerusalem.

In addition, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry provided a subtle warning to Israel earlier this month, saying at the Munich Security Conference that the Jewish state would face more BDS efforts should a negotiated settlement not be reached between the Israelis and Palestinians in their current U.S.-brokered negotiations. Kerry’s comments drew ire from numerous Israeli officials.

“You see, for Israel there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things,” Kerry said.

Addressing the same group of Jewish leaders just hours before Netanyahu, Israeli finance minister and leader of the Yesh Atid Party, Yair Lapid, mirrored Kerry’s warnings, telling the delegation that the Finance Ministry’s research department suggested that Israel’s economy was “more vulnerable to any kind of international sanctions or boycott” should Israel fail to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians.

“The results might be nothing less but devastating to the private welfare of each and every Israeli citizen,” said Lapid.

Inbar believes that the boycott threat is “exaggerated.” 

“This research was not published, and I doubt very much that it was serious,” he told JNS.org. “But even if it is, the basic line for Israel should be that peace is important to us, but not at any price.  If Israel will have to pay in economic terms for its security, then I think it is worth it.”

According to Inbar, there is little wisdom in Israel’s finance minister publicly warning of possible costs to Israel for not reaching a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, as it essentially encourages Palestinians not to make a deal. 

“This helps the Palestinians,” Inbar said. “Why should they be in a hurry to sign a deal if the Israelis are going to feel pressured to make more concessions.”

Deputy Legal Adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tal Becker similarly addressed the American delegation, suggesting that Jewish leaders should not give too much credence to the threat of boycotts.

According to Becker, Israel should consider delegitimization efforts as a nuisance, in what he termed a “nuisance versus threat dilemma.” 

“Treating it as a great threat gives it oxygen. I can think of no better gift to those trying to delegitimize Israel,” Becker said.

Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, was even more emphatic when discussing the possibilities that European governments, financial institutions, and businesses might stop engaging in commerce with Israel.

“Israel will not change its policies because of EU threats,” Kuperwasser said. “We deplore any attempt to use economic threats as a tool to change our policies.”

Rejecting the idea that Israel should take the threats seriously, Kuperwasser added, “If the purpose of the State of Israel was economic viability, we wouldn’t be here to begin with.”

According to Inbar, the financial impact of boycotts is limited compared to the
“normative effect” that the BDS movement has, which is to delegitimize the actions and very existence of the state of Israel.

“It is the delegitimization efforts that Israel needs to be most concerned with,” Inbar told JNS.org.

Kuperwasser said those that threaten Israel—including the Palestinians—are not doing it solely because of Israel’s presence in the disputed territories, but rather because they are opposed to the very essence of a Jewish state.

“So-called human rights organizations are attempting to disguise their nature as true enemies of the state of Israel. Our job is to expose it,” Kuperwasser said.

This approach, Kuperwasser believes, must carry over into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and has affected Israel’s demands for reaching a negotiated settlement.

“It is not by incident that the government has demanded the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State,” Kuperwasser said.

“Those who do not want to recognize Israel as a Jewish State are not doing so because they believe that the character of the state can be changed. The conflict is about the right of Israel to exist as a nation-state of the Jewish people,” he said.

Accordingly, in Kuperwasser’s estimation, failure to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a form of delegitimization.

“If we manage to fight efforts of delegitimization, the prospects for peace will increase,” he said. 

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Posted on February 20, 2014 and filed under Israel, News, U.S..