BDS: a battle Israel cannot win
The pro-Israel camp - and some supporters of the Palestinian cause - are viewing the Scarlett Johansson / SodaStream saga as a defeat for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. I fundamentally disagree.
Yes, the actress refused to bow to pressure to stop being the poster girl for the Israeli company, which has a factory on occupied Palestinian territory. And yes, she stepped down as an ambassador for Oxfam at the end of January because of the charity’s contribution to that pressure.
However, SodaStream shares sank to their lowest level since 2012 following the spat. Much more importantly, the actions and reactions of the company, and to a far greater extent Johansson, unwittingly gave BDS a massive - and free - publicity boost, with weeks of global media coverage that is ongoing.
“The Lost in Translation star has accidentally turned a searchlight on an important issue – whether it is right or lawful to do business with companies that operate in illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land – as well as inadvertently sprinkling stardust on the campaign to boycott Israel until it withdraws from the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem,” the Financial Times wrote in an editorial.
Furthermore, the involvement of a Hollywood star and international sex symbol got the attention of many people who may have been hitherto unfamiliar with BDS, and even the Palestinian cause in general. As such, those of us who have never been particularly impressed by her acting finally have something to thank her for.
Fringe to mainstream
Even if one views the SodaStream affair as a setback, BDS has made great and undeniable strides since its establishment almost a decade ago, modelled along the campaign that was pivotal to ending apartheid in South Africa. Initially mocked and dismissed as fringe fanaticism, it is becoming mainstream, garnering greater support worldwide.
BDS is gaining traction in countries and regions that are key trading partners and allies of Tel Aviv - particularly the United States and Europe
It is causing alarm in Israel, not least because BDS is gaining traction in countries and regions that are key trading partners and allies of Tel Aviv - particularly the United States and Europe - and because the movement is being backed by an increasing number of Jews, such that Israel passed a law in 2011 banning support for boycotts.
BDS “is moving and advancing uniformly and exponentially,” Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said in December. “Those who don’t want to see it will end up feeling it.” Israeli parliament member Ayelet Shaked last month described the campaign as “the greatest threat faced by the country.”
They are both right. BDS is proving to be the most effective means of achieving Palestinian rights and national aspirations in the face of Israel’s intransigence. The movement is succeeding where negotiations, arms, and even other forms of peaceful resistance have failed.
Its achievements are far too long to list, but highlighting just some of those from this year alone shows the impact it is having, particularly impressive given the short period of time:
- Danske Bank, the largest in Denmark, has blacklisted Israel’s Bank Hapoalim because of its involvement in the funding of settlement construction. Danske Bank had already decided to pull its investments from Africa Israel Investments Ltd and Danya Cebus for the same reason.
- The latter two companies have been excluded from Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund, which holds 1% of global equity markets. The Finance Ministry had received a recommendation from the Council of Ethics to exclude the companies “due to contribution to serious violations of individual rights in war or conflict through the construction of settlements in East Jerusalem.”
- Sweden’s Nordea Bank, the largest in Scandinavia, said it will boycott Israeli banks that operate in the occupied territories.
- The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development will reportedly investigate British security company G4S for its supply of surveillance equipment at Israeli checkpoints in the occupied territories.
- Dutch pension fund PGGM has withdrawn investments worth tens of millions of euros from five Israeli banks. “Given the day-to-day reality and domestic legal framework they operate in, the banks have limited to no possibilities to end their involvement in the financing of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories,” said PGGM.
- Germany, one of Israel’s staunchest allies, is conditioning research support and cooperation on the exclusion of settlements. This “represents a significant escalation in European measures against the settlements,” Agence France Presse reported.
- The boycott of settlement products resulted in the income of Israeli farmers in the Jordan Valley falling by more than 14% last year, the Associated Press reported. “The damage is enormous,” said David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, which represents about 7,000 settlers. “In effect, today, we are almost not selling to the European market anymore.”
Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid warned last month that even a partial European boycott would cost the country some $5.7 billion in exports annually, and almost 10,000 jobs. “The Israeli economy will retreat, every Israeli citizen will be hit directly in his pocket, the cost of living will rise, budgets for education, health, welfare and security will be cut, and many international markets will be closed to us,” he said.
Similarly, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said if current peace talks fail (and they almost certainly will), Israel will likely face an international boycott “on steroids.” Predictably, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ignoring internal and external warnings. In so doing, he is supplying and injecting the steroids.
Israel’s traditionally fearsome PR machine is proving increasingly impotent as the country grows more isolated. Justifying the unjustifiable is looking more and more ridiculous and abhorrent to more and more people, companies, institutions and governments.
Given Israel’s vast military superiority, and the diplomatic immunity the United States provides at the U.N. Security Council, BDS is hitting where it hurts: the economy, whose “vulnerability is now greater than the threat of war,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said last month.
“Today, the economy is managed by multinationals... Today, you don’t need a boycott from above, a boycott by countries; it's enough for a certain company to turn up its nose,” Peres added. They are doing just that, often beyond the reach of governments that would rather avoid the issue.
South Africa “didn’t realize until well after the fact the severity of the sanctions against it,” said Lapid. Time will tell whether Israel will do the same. Two things are certain: the price of its occupation, colonization and repression is rising fast; and the scenario predicted by the finance minister can be avoided by granting the Palestinians their inalienable rights.
Instead, announcements of settlement construction continue unabated, and demolition of Palestinian homes is at a five-year high, not to mention a raft of other daily violations. The ball is in Israel’s court, but it can no longer play according to its own rules. Whether its leadership realizes this yet is another matter.