For the last 20 years, Israel and the pro-Israel community have been obsessively focused on the ineffectual but vocal anti-Semitic boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS. Meanwhile, the equally unsuccessful boycott imposed by the Arab League in 1945 has remained in force and was reaffirmed this week. Most notable was that while other Gulf states are prospering thanks to trade with Israel following the Abraham Accords, Kuwait declared its commitment to maintaining its boycott of Israel.
For those unfamiliar, in December 1945, just a few months after the establishment of the Arab League, the organization declared that “Jewish products and manufactured goods shall be considered undesirable to the Arab countries.” All Arab “institutions, organizations, merchants, commission agents and individuals” were called upon “to refuse to deal in, distribute or consume Zionist products or manufactured goods.”
Note that the boycott was imposed two years before the partition resolution to establish a Jewish state. We often talk about the “new anti-Semitism” that uses the word “Zionist” as a euphemism for Jews. The Arab League made no effort to disguise its target as Jews. It explicitly used the word “Jewish” and clearly used “Zionist” as a synonym.
On Aug. 1, the Liaison Officers of the Arab Boycott Offices held their 95th meeting—yes, you read that correctly—in the 77 years the boycott has been in force, they have held more than one meeting a year. According to the Palestinian news agency, the final communiqué “affirmed the importance of reinforcing the Arab efforts and activities intended to implement the boycott of Israel” and stipulated “that boycotting the Israeli occupation and its settler-colonialism is one of the effective and legitimate means to end the occupation and salvage the two-state solution and peace process.”
The boycott was never meant to facilitate peace. It was meant to isolate Israel and strangle its economy. That is the goal of the BDS campaign, too.
Today, supporters of the Palestinians and anti-Semites (sometimes one and the same) are fighting against legislation to outlaw their boycott efforts. A similar battle was fought in the 1970s by Arab states and U.S. companies afraid of losing business with them. In 1977, Congress prohibited U.S. companies from cooperating with the Arab boycott. When President Jimmy Carter signed the law, he said the “issue goes to the very heart of free trade among nations” and that it was designed to “end the divisive effects on American life of foreign boycotts aimed at Jewish members of our society.” Note Carter acknowledged Jews were targeted.
As they have since the 1930s, the Arabists and other apologists warned of dire consequences for U.S.-Israel relations that never occurred.
Today, the argument against legislation to ban domestic boycotts is a similarly spurious one, suggesting it would violate the First Amendment rights of Israel’s critics to vent their desire to see Israel disappear. A federal appeals court put that lie to rest in upholding the Arkansas state anti-BDS law. Judge Jonathan Kobes wrote in the court’s opinion that the legislation did not prevent criticism of Israel or protesting the law. “It only prohibits economic decisions that discriminate against Israel. Because those commercial decisions are invisible to observers unless explained, they are not inherently expressive and do not implicate the First Amendment.”
After Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel, the Arab League boycott began to crumble. Long before the Abraham Accords, in 1994, the six Gulf Cooperation Council states announced they would no longer support the secondary boycott barring trade with companies doing business with Israel. Still, U.S. companies continued to receive requests to cooperate with the boycott from GCC countries. Most came from the United Arab Emirates, but it canceled its boycott law as part of the Abraham Accords in 2020.
Some boycott requests also came from Saudi Arabia, but it has also largely abandoned the boycott, albeit unofficially, as Israeli and Saudi officials now interact openly, business is done quietly, and Saudi airspace just opened to Israeli overflights. Just the other day, a public report acknowledged that Saudi Arabian company Mithaq Capital increased its holding in the Israeli autotech company Otonomo Technologies.
One Gulf nation made a point at the recent meeting of reasserting its commitment to boycotting Israel. Kuwait announced it was maintaining “a total ban on any product with even the remotest links to Israel,” according to the Arab Times. “Any retailer found to be carrying goods with a connection to Israel will face ‘stiff penalties,’” Meshari Al-Jarallah, a legal researcher at Kuwait’s customs department stated, “emphasizing the need to ‘ratchet up’ enforcement of an economic boycott on Israel.”
In 2020, Kuwait Airways agreed to pay a $700,000 fine because it refused on 14 occasions to accept passengers with Israeli passports on flights from New York to London. Of that, $100,000 was suspended for three years and would be waived if it committed no further violations.
I did not see any criticism from the Biden administration of the boycott meeting or the Kuwaiti boast of its support for continuing its economic war on Israel. Given the secretary of state’s expressed commitment to expanding the Abraham Accords, the administration and Congress should be making clear, publicly and privately, that Kuwait’s position is unacceptable.
It should not be necessary to remind the country’s leaders that their heads would have been separated from their soldiers and their population would be Iraqi if not for America saving their country from neighboring dictator Saddam Hussein. Kuwait’s survival remains dependent on American goodwill. The United States also has economic leverage, as it is one of Kuwait’s largest suppliers of goods and services, as well as advanced weapons systems. Just last year, the two countries discussed enhancing bilateral and strategic relations. These should be made contingent on ending the boycott of Israel. Congress should also consider revoking Kuwait’s status as a non-NATO ally.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.