On Israel-Palestine and BDS
Editor’s Note: BDS has been a topic of vigorous debate in the Nation community. For more on that debate, and for a range of responses to this article in the coming days, go to TheNation.com/BDS.
The misery caused by Israel’s actions in the occupied territories has elicited serious concern among at least some Israelis. One of the most outspoken, for many years, has been Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz, who writes that “Israel should be condemned and punished for creating insufferable life under occupation, [and] for the fact that a country that claims to be among the enlightened nations continues abusing an entire people, day and night.”
He is surely correct, and we should add something more: the United States should also be condemned and punished for providing the decisive military, economic, diplomatic and even ideological support for these crimes. So long as it continues to do so, there is little reason to expect Israel to relent in its brutal policies.
The distinguished Israeli scholar Zeev Sternhell, reviewing the reactionary nationalist tide in his country, writes that “the occupation will continue, land will be confiscated from its owners to expand the settlements, the Jordan Valley will be cleansed of Arabs, Arab Jerusalem will be strangled by Jewish neighborhoods, and any act of robbery and foolishness that serves Jewish expansion in the city will be welcomed by the High Court of Justice. The road to South Africa has been paved and will not be blocked until the Western world presents Israel with an unequivocal choice: Stop the annexation and dismantle most of the colonies and the settler state, or be an outcast.”
One crucial question is whether the United States will stop undermining the international consensus, which favors a two-state settlement along the internationally recognized border (the Green Line established in the 1949 ceasefire agreements), with guarantees for “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.” That was the wording of a resolution brought to the UN Security Council in January 1976 by Egypt, Syria and Jordan, supported by the Arab states—and vetoed by the United States.
This was not the first time Washington had barred a peaceful diplomatic settlement. The prize for that goes to Henry Kissinger, who supported Israel’s 1971 decision to reject a settlement offered by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, choosing expansion over security—a course that Israel has followed with US support ever since. Sometimes Washington’s position becomes almost comical, as in February 2011, when the Obama administration vetoed a UN resolution that supported official US policy: opposition to Israel’s settlement expansion, which continues (also with US support) despite some whispers of disapproval.
It is not expansion of the huge settlement and infrastructure program (including the separation wall) that is the issue, but rather its very existence—all of it illegal, as determined by the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice, and recognized as such by virtually the entire world apart from Israel and the United States since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who downgraded “illegal” to “an obstacle to peace.”
One way to punish Israel for its egregious crimes was initiated by the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom in 1997: a boycott of settlement products. Such initiatives have been considerably expanded since then. In June, the Presbyterian Church resolved to divest from three US-based multinationals involved in the occupation. The most far-reaching success is the policy directive of the European Union that forbids funding, cooperation, research awards or any similar relationship with any Israeli entity that has “direct or indirect links” to the occupied territories, where all settlements are illegal, as the EU declaration reiterates. Britain had already directed retailers to “distinguish between goods originating from Palestinian producers and goods originating from illegal Israeli settlements.”
Four years ago, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to abide by “its international legal obligation” to remove the settlements and to end its “blatantly discriminatory practices” in the occupied territories. HRW also called on the United States to suspend financing to Israel “in an amount equivalent to the costs of Israel’s spending in support of settlements,” and to verify that tax exemptions for organizations contributing to Israel “are consistent with U.S. obligations to ensure respect for international law, including prohibitions against discrimination.”
There have been a great many other boycott and divestment initiatives in the past decade, occasionally—but not sufficiently—reaching to the crucial matter of US support for Israeli crimes. Meanwhile, a BDS movement (calling for “boycott, divestment and sanctions”) has been formed, often citing South African models; more accurately, the abbreviation should be “BD,” since sanctions, or state actions, are not on the horizon—one of the many significant differences from South Africa.
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The opening call of the BDS movement, by a group of Palestinian intellectuals in 2005, demanded that Israel fully comply with international law by “(1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; (2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”
This call received considerable attention, and deservedly so. But if we’re concerned about the fate of the victims, BD and other tactics have to be carefully thought through and evaluated in terms of their likely consequences. The pursuit of (1) in the above list makes good sense: it has a clear objective and is readily understood by its target audience in the West, which is why the many initiatives guided by (1) have been quite successful—not only in “punishing” Israel, but also in stimulating other forms of opposition to the occupation and US support for it.
However, this is not the case for (3). While there is near-universal international support for (1), there is virtually no meaningful support for (3) beyond the BDS movement itself. Nor is (3) dictated by international law. The text of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is conditional, and in any event it is a recommendation, without the legal force of the Security Council resolutions that Israel regularly violates. Insistence on (3) is a virtual guarantee of failure.
The only slim hope for realizing (3) in more than token numbers is if longer-term developments lead to the erosion of the imperial borders imposed by France and Britain after World War I, which, like similar borders, have no legitimacy. This could lead to a “no-state solution”—the optimal one, in my view, and in the real world no less plausible than the “one-state solution” that is commonly, but mistakenly, discussed as an alternative to the international consensus.
The case for (2) is more ambiguous. There are “prohibitions against discrimination” in international law, as HRW observes. But pursuit of (2) at once opens the door to the standard “glass house” reaction: for example, if we boycott Tel Aviv University because Israel violates human rights at home, then why not boycott Harvard because of far greater violations by the United States? Predictably, initiatives focusing on (2) have been a near-uniform failure, and will continue to be unless educational efforts reach the point of laying much more groundwork in the public understanding for them, as was done in the case of South Africa.
Failed initiatives harm the victims doubly—by shifting attention from their plight to irrelevant issues (anti-Semitism at Harvard, academic freedom, etc.), and by wasting current opportunities to do something meaningful.
Concern for the victims dictates that in assessing tactics, we should be scrupulous in recognizing what has succeeded or failed, and why. This has not always been the case (Michael Neumann discusses one of many examples of this failure in the Winter 2014 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies). The same concern dictates that we must be scrupulous about facts. Take the South African analogy, constantly cited in this context. It is a very dubious one. There’s a reason why BDS tactics were used for decades against South Africa while the current campaign against Israel is restricted to BD: in the former case, activism had created such overwhelming international opposition to apartheid that individual states and the UN had imposed sanctions decades before the 1980s, when BD tactics began to be used extensively in the United States. By then, Congress was legislating sanctions and overriding Reagan’s vetoes on the issue.
Years earlier—by 1960—global investors had already abandoned South Africa to such an extent that its financial reserves were halved; although there was some recovery, the handwriting was on the wall. In contrast, US investment is flowing into Israel. When Warren Buffett bought an Israeli tool-making firm for $2 billion last year, he described Israel as the most promising country for investors outside the United States itself.
While there is, finally, a growing domestic opposition in the United States to Israeli crimes, it does not remotely compare with the South African case. The necessary educational work has not been done. Spokespeople for the BDS movement may believe they have attained their “South African moment,” but that is far from accurate. And if tactics are to be effective, they must be based on a realistic assessment of actual circumstances.
Much the same is true of the invocation of apartheid. Within Israel, discrimination against non-Jews is severe; the land laws are just the most extreme example. But it is not South African–style apartheid. In the occupied territories, the situation is far worse than it was in South Africa, where the white nationalists needed the black population: it was the country’s workforce, and as grotesque as the bantustans were, the nationalist government devoted resources to sustaining and seeking international recognition for them. In sharp contrast, Israel wants to rid itself of the Palestinian burden. The road ahead is not toward South Africa, as commonly alleged, but toward something much worse.
Where that road leads is unfolding before our eyes. As Sternhell observes, Israel will continue its current policies. It will maintain a vicious siege of Gaza, separating it from the West Bank, as the United States and Israel have been doing ever since they accepted the Oslo Accords in 1993. Although Oslo declared Palestine to be “a single territorial unit,” in official Israeli parlance the West Bank and Gaza have become “two separate and different areas.” As usual, there are security pretexts, which collapse quickly upon examination.
In the West Bank, Israel will continue to take whatever it finds valuable—land, water, resources—dispersing the limited Palestinian population while integrating these acquisitions within a Greater Israel. This includes the vastly expanded “Jerusalem” that Israel annexed in violation of Security Council orders; everything on the Israeli side of the illegal separation wall; corridors to the east creating unviable Palestinian cantons; the Jordan Valley, where Palestinians are being systematically expelled and Jewish settlements established; and huge infrastructure projects linking all these acquisitions to Israel proper.
The road ahead leads not to South Africa, but rather to an increase in the proportion of Jews in the Greater Israel that is being constructed. This is the realistic alternative to a two-state settlement. There is no reason to expect Israel to accept a Palestinian population it does not want.
John Kerry was bitterly condemned when he repeated the lament—common inside Israel—that unless the Israelis accept some kind of two-state solution, their country will become an apartheid state, ruling over a territory with an oppressed Palestinian majority and facing the dreaded “demographic problem”: too many non-Jews in a Jewish state. The proper criticism is that this common belief is a mirage. As long as the United States supports Israel’s expansionist policies, there is no reason to expect them to cease. Tactics have to be designed accordingly.
However, there is one comparison to South Africa that is realistic—and significant. In 1958, South Africa’s foreign minister informed the US ambassador that it didn’t much matter if South Africa became a pariah state. The UN may harshly condemn South Africa, he said, but, as the ambassador put it, “what mattered perhaps more than all other votes put together was that of [the] U.S. in view of its predominant position of leadership in [the] Western world.” For forty years, ever since it chose expansion over security, Israel has made essentially the same judgment.
For South Africa, the calculation was fairly successful for a long time. In 1970, casting its first-ever veto of a Security Council resolution, the United States joined Britain to block action against the racist regime of Southern Rhodesia, a move that was repeated in 1973. Eventually, Washington became the UN veto champion by a wide margin, primarily in defense of Israeli crimes. But by the 1980s, South Africa’s strategy was losing its efficacy. In 1987, even Israel—perhaps the only country then violating the arms embargo against South Africa—agreed to “reduce its ties to avoid endangering relations with the U.S. Congress,” the director general of the Israeli foreign ministry reported. The concern was that Congress might punish Israel for its violation of recent US law. In private, Israeli officials assured their South African friends that the new sanctions would be mere “window dressing.” A few years later, South Africa’s last supporters in Washington joined the world consensus, and the apartheid regime soon collapsed.
In South Africa, a compromise was reached that was satisfactory to the country’s elites and to US business interests: apartheid was ended, but the socioeconomic regime remained. In effect, there would be some black faces in the limousines, but privilege and profit would not be much affected. In Palestine, there is no similar compromise in prospect.
Another decisive factor in South Africa was Cuba. As Piero Gleijeses has demonstrated in his masterful scholarly work, Cuban internationalism, which has no real analogue today, played a leading role in ending apartheid and in the liberation of black Africa generally. There was ample reason why Nelson Mandela visited Havana soon after his release from prison, declaring: “We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed the people of Cuba. What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?”
He was quite correct. Cuban forces drove the South African aggressors out of Angola; were a key factor in releasing Namibia from their brutal grip; and made it very clear to the apartheid regime that its dream of imposing its rule over South Africa and the region was turning into a nightmare. In Mandela’s words, Cuban forces “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor,” which he said “was the turning point for the liberation of our continent—and of my people—from the scourge of apartheid.”
Cuban “soft power” was no less effective, including 70,000 highly skilled aid workers and scholarships in Cuba for thousands of Africans. In radical contrast, Washington was not only the last holdout in protecting South Africa, but even continued afterward to support the murderous Angolan terrorist forces of Jonas Savimbi, “a monster whose lust for power had brought appalling misery to his people,” in the words of Marrack Goulding, the British ambassador to Angola—a verdict seconded by the CIA.
Palestinians can hope for no such savior. This is all the more reason why those who are sincerely dedicated to the Palestinian cause should avoid illusion and myth, and think carefully about the tactics they choose and the course they follow.
Read Next: Noam Chomsky writes that our government has always justified its worst abuses of power—here and abroad—on the basis of “national security.”