Global Independent Analytics
Danny Orbach
Danny Orbach

Location: USA

Specialization: Modern Japanese History, Modern Chinese History, Military History, History of Counterinsurgency, History of Disobedience, Dynamics of Atrocities in Wartime

BDS Will Fail to End the Israeli Occupation (and Didn't Actually Work in South Africa)

Is the BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) movement effective as a means to end the occupation? The historical record gives a negative answer. In order to achieve a breakthrough, one has to adopt an altogether different strategy.

In the classic film Masada, an epic production on the last stand of Judea’s besieged rebels, there is a particularly interesting scene. The Roman commander Lucius Flavius Silva, frustrated by the protracted siege, secretly meets the Jewish rebel leader Elazar Ben Yair to find a way out of the stalemate. When the rebel voices his demands, his Roman counterpart does not take them too seriously. “I know your bazaars,” he says with disdain, “in the beginning you always quote a high price, only to reduce it later on.” “If you are truly familiar with the bazaar,” Elazar answers, “you should know that upon reaching a certain price, the merchant will not lower it, even not when his life are at stake.”

The merchant’s price that cannot be lowered, as I will argue shortly, is highly symbolic of the problem with BDS, the Palestinian initiative for boycott, divestment and sanctions: its adherents attempt to coerce the Israeli Bazar merchant to reduce the price below the minimum, and to accept a solution deemed suicidal by most Israelis.

Politically, I have always been opposed to BDS. And yet, I will gloss over some of the most common arguments against the movement, such as the “singling out” of Israel when other Middle Eastern states human rights’ violation record is much worse, the numerous mistakes and distortions of its propaganda, or its all-too-common flirt with anti-Semites. Instead, I shall focus on an altogether different question: the efficiency of BDS as a means to end the occupation. My presumption is that anyone who tries to achieve a political goal, cannot rely merely on feelings of justice and righteousness. Also, he has to choose an efficient strategy to meet his ends. Those who wants to boycott Israel, for example, only because their conscience dictates so, or due to the “call of Palestinian civil society,” do not think strategically. Sometimes, it seems that the moral pleasure of clearing their conscience trumps the importance of the final political destination.

The main way to gauge the efficiency of BDS is a thorough examination of relevant historical precedents. How often were states moved by economic pressure, sanctions and boycotts? North Korea, for example, suffers from particularly harsh sanctions, and yet obstinately refuses to change its policy, let alone its regime. Sanctions also failed in overthrowing the regimes in Iraq and Iran, or forcing Putin out of Crimea. More importantly, years of boycott of the Hamas Government in Gaza, accompanied by a siege and destructive rounds of fighting, failed to dislodge this regime. In fact, despite the widespread poverty in Gaza, the regime was even strengthened, because the besieged population often depends on Hamas’ resources for survival. Allegedly, the Apartheid regime in South Africa is an exception that proves the rule, but this is also wrong, as we shall see shortly.

Admittedly, economic sanctions had a limited influence in some of these cases; Not on North Korea, maybe, but possibly on Iran. Some observers convincingly argued that the economic pressure on Tehran forced the rulers of the Islamic Republic into the nuclear negotiations room. There are also some indications that Putin somewhat restrained his military involvement in Eastern Ukraine due to the sanctions, and even Hamas began to police the Gaza border with Israel to prevent rocket launching. However, these concessions were more or less tangential to each regime’s ethos or core interests. No sanctions in the world, for example, would force Iran to normalize relations with Israel, to change its religious constitution, or to forgo Uranium enriching altogether. Hamas, too, could not be pressured to recognize Israel’s existence or to accept formally the Oslo accords. Sanctions can pressure, but they have a slight chance to convince any regime to give up interests deemed existential or even essential. As in the movie Masada, there is a certain price that the bazar merchant shall never reduce regardless of the pressure applied.

South Africa is often described as an exception to this rule. However, also here, reality is more complicated than the rosy myth cultivated by generations of left-wing activists. In fact, white South Africans repeatedly voted to retain Apartheid, even in face of the tightening boycott. They were ready to give up only in response to dramatic ANC concessions. As a result of the Washington Accords, the African National Congress was forced to abandon its radical socialist orientation, and to give up its demands to nationalize banks, mines, and natural resources. In practice, the new ANC government agreed to preserve the economic privileges of the white population, in glaring contradiction to the aspiration of its public and its own long-standing demands. At the end of the day, even a particularly stringent boycott could not “convince” the whites to give up on their core interest – perpetuation of their Western-capitalist way of life. The boycott might have helped, but only the concessions of the ANC produced the final breakthrough.

As shown by these historical precedents, the BDS movement is banging its head into a wall. No boycott can convince the Israeli public to give up existential or essential interests. Only a war leading to Israel’s total occupation can do this, a possibility not imagined even by the most optimistic boycott activists. For the vast majority of Israelis see their core interest in the continued existence of their country as a Jewish state. Inside Israeli society there are numerous debates about the borders of this Jewish polity and its precise constitutional nature, much rarely so on the idea itself. The average Israeli does not believe that a compromise with the Palestinians is possible, precisely because he came to think that they will never recognize Israel’s existence, and in fact will work to eliminate it piecemeal. This approach, mistaken or simplistic as it may be, is based on Israel’s experience after the Disengagement Plan from Gaza. Anybody who seeks a solution to the conflict will ignore this conviction only at his own peril. No boycott will convince the Israelis to opt for solutions they see as suicidal.

In fact, instead of mitigating these fears, the BDS strategy only strengthens them. The movement, after all, has three main demands: an end to the occupation in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, full equality to the Arabs living inside Israel, and a “right of return” to the 1948 Palestinian refugees. The boycott, as the movement states time and again, should continue until these three demands are fully met. The demand to allow millions of Palestinian refugees into Israel proper, is in fact very close to the Israeli definition of national suicide. Not only will such a solution put an end to the Zionist dream of Jewish self-determination, but it will also endanger the physical existence of Israelis. In a region where ethnic groups tear each other apart in bloody struggles, it is a very dangerous idea to let millions of hostile, vengeful former enemies into your country. This demand is also starkly unjust, in Israeli eyes, because the BDS also demands the evacuation of all settlers from the future Palestinian state, which should be Judenrein. Even the demand for full equality for Israeli Arabs, justified as it may be, in addition to BDS demonization of everything Israeli, blurs any distinction between the West Bank and Israel proper. As such, it reinforces Israeli fears that BDS is inimical to their very sovereign existence. Even most Israelis relatively sympathetic to the Palestinian cause will refuse to cooperate with a movement committed to their eventual destruction.

What should one do to end the occupation? Here, it might be useful to examine the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, one of the rare triumphs of the peace process. Israeli leaders Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan, who promised to never leave Sinai, gave it back to Egypt till the last grain of sand. As a result, both sides were able to establish a cold but stable peace that endures to this day. From a strategic point of view, this agreement was made possible not only through intensive US pressure but also because both sides were equally humbled. As a result of the inconclusive war of 1973, both sides understood that they could not reach a military decision, and hence agreed to diplomatic concessions.

In the same vein, anyone who wants to lead to the end of the occupation has to pressure both Israelis and Palestinians to offer major, unprecedented and at the same time tolerable concessions. Israel, for one, should be pressured to immediately recognize an independent Palestinian state in temporary borders. It also has to release key prisoners like Marwan Barghouti, allow development of private Palestinian land, offer compensations to inhabitants of isolated settlements who agree to evacuate, and entrust more territory to Palestinian Authority control. At the same time, the Palestinians should be pressured to give up their unrealistic dream for a mass “right of return” to Israel proper, and to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Only such substantial and simultaneous concessions by both sides could dissipate existential fears and give the negotiations a chance. One thing, however, is clear: a moralistic, dogmatic and self-righteous pressure on one side alone will be counterproductive as it will incentivize the other side to radicalize. Through its current strategy, the BDS movement is doing just that. Similarly to the unbridled US support to Israel, BDS is part of the problem, not the solution.

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