Knesset of Fools

A harsh new anti-boycott bill will help achieve the exact opposite of what its advocates intended: the delegitimization of the Jewish state.


In the latest of a series of extraordinarily self-defeating moves, Israel’s legislature, the Knesset, has just adopted the so-called "Boycott Bill," penalizing any call within Israel to boycott Israel or its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. The new law allows for civil suits against boycott supporters, denies them state benefits, and prevents the Israeli government from doing business with them. For a society terrified of what it sees as an international campaign of "delegitimization," its own parliament could not have produced a more stunning blow to Israel’s legitimacy by conflating Israel as such with the settlements and the occupation.

Of course this law could not have been otherwise, since virtually all effective BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) efforts in the West have been targeted against the occupation and the settlements, not against Israel. Some BDS activists would clearly like to extend this campaign to target Israel proper, but such efforts have met with extremely limited success in Western societies. On the other hand, efforts to express disapproval of Israel’s illegitimate settlement activities and therefore also illegitimate goods produced in the settlements have been meeting with a modest but increasing degree of effectiveness.

The "Boycott Bill," therefore, was never really about Israel at all, but about protecting the settlements and the settlers from a growing international campaign to refuse to subsidize a project that is a dagger aimed at the heart of prospects for a viable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as a blatant violation of international law. City councils and governments in Europe are increasingly distancing themselves from commercial activities connected to the occupation. Norway, for example, divested from Elbit Systems, a company that manufactures sensor devices for the West Bank separation barrier, and subsequently from Africa Israel Investments, which is heavily involved in settlement construction.

The campaign against Israeli settlements is real, but this new law will almost certainly backfire. By crudely conflating Israel — which is almost universally regarded as a legitimate member state of the United Nations — with its occupation and settlements in the West Bank — which are almost universally regarded as illegitimate and indeed illegal, as well as a threat to peace — the Knesset has yet again provided an official Israeli argument for those who would extend the boycott campaign to include all Israeli institutions and not just aspects of the occupation.

The Israeli government has done this numerous times in the past. For example, when Israel applied for OECD membership, the national economic statistics it presented included the entire settlement economy, but no statistics reflecting the Palestinian villages surrounding the settlements throughout the West Bank. What this suggests is an official Israeli perspective in which there is a virtual Israel that exists wherever a settler happens to be at any given moment, and an undefined, unresolved occupation everywhere else. This legally and politically untenable and indeed preposterous position is similarly reflected in the new "Boycott Bill."

Some of the boycott activities that Israel points to as "delegitimization" were forced by its own refusal to distinguish between itself and the settlements. In several instances, European vendors have made it clear that they are happy to sell Israeli products, but not those from the settlements, which they quite properly decline to support because they are illegitimate and dangerous. Israel has refused to provide any markings, identifying characteristics, or other indicators that would assure these vendors that the products in question were indeed from Israel and not from settlements in the occupied territories. As a consequence, several European vendors, particularly in Italy, simply stopped stocking Israeli imports, not because they objected to goods from Israel, but because they refuse to unwittingly sell settlement products and Israel will not distinguish them.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the Knesset members who passed the "Boycott Bill" and their supporters do not seem to understand that boycotts, divestment, and sanctions that are carefully targeted against the occupation and the settlements but scrupulously avoid targeting Israel legitimize rather than delegitimize the Israeli state. They say, in effect: We do not want to buy or sell the products of the illegitimate settlement program, but we are happy to buy or sell Israeli goods because Israel is a legitimate state. By carefully targeting the occupation and the settlements, such boycotts implicitly recognize the legitimacy of Israel itself. But to supporters of the settlements, this is of little or no importance. To them, it’s all simply Israel.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been engaged in precisely this kind of boycott in the small areas under its control in the West Bank. Beginning in March 2010, it circulated brochures to every household in "Area A" complete with color images of the logos of the banned settlement companies so that no one could have any doubts about which products were unlawful. After an initial grace period, the PA began forcibly removing these products from Palestinian shops and then shortly afterward began prosecuting those distributing them. Palestinians have been effectively urging people the world over, including sympathetic Israelis, to join them in seeking clarity, and drawing a sharp distinction between Israel on the one hand and the settlement project on the other.

This Palestinian boycott of settlement goods is an integral part of the program of nonviolent resistance to occupation currently under way in the West Bank, and the international campaign is an extension of that. The "Boycott Bill" is an attack on precisely this kind of nonviolent protest, which is, of course, the appropriate alternative to the self-destructive and self-defeating violence of the past. But, as with other forms of nonviolent resistance, Israel is proving as intolerant to this nonviolent tactic as it has been to all other forms of combating the occupation. For Israel, it seems, the only accepted response is to submit and stop making a fuss of any kind.

It’s no surprise that large numbers of prominent Knesset members were unaccountably missing from the "Boycott Bill" vote, most notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is not only because the law is an obvious affront to freedom of speech and other principles of democracy, but also because of the high likelihood it will be struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court. Canny Israeli politicians no doubt also understand that rhetorically conflating Israel and the settlements in such a crude manner is a very dangerous thing to do in the immediate term, and potentially disastrous in the long run.

Given the powerful international consensus against the settlements — including the United States, which unequivocally holds that the settlement project is at least illegitimate, if not outright illegal, and which clearly distinguishes between Israel and the occupation — this crude law inflicts the most powerful delegitimizing blow against Israel in living memory.

When the Knesset itself says it does not recognize the difference between any effort to boycott Israel and those that target the settlements, it invites the rest of the world to see things in the same light. It encourages those who would not stop at expressing disapproval of the occupation but wish to target Israel and Israelis generally. Moreover, by making Israel indistinguishable from the illegitimate settlement project, it raises the banner of delegitimization higher than any group of non-Israeli activists could ever have hoped to.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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