Kerry's Israel Boycott Talk Will Backfire
John Kerry is quite obviously a friend of Israel. He was a friend in the Senate, and he is one as U.S. secretary of state. His work on behalf of a two-state solution seems motivated by a deep love for Israel and a fear that Israel will cease to be a democratic haven for the Jewish people -- the world’s only Jewish-majority country, its first in 2,000 years -- if it cannot disentangle itself from the lives of the Palestinians, who seek a country of their own. Israeli politicians on the extreme right who suggest that Kerry is anti-Semite, or a hater of Zionism, or the spawn of Satan, or whatever, are idiots.
Kerry’s strategy in the Middle East is quite clever; he is systematically addressing every worry articulated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an effort to neutralize Israeli anxiety. But I think that Kerry has been making one mistake in his approach to these negotiations: His need to publicly invoke -- repeatedly -- the specter of an international campaign to boycott Israel is not helping advance his cause.
Kerry makes the argument that Israel will face new, and intensified, boycott pressure if peace talks fail, and he may be right. But by publicly discussing this possibility, he is providing fuel to the forces aligned against Israel (and keep in mind that most boycotters are not opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, but instead to the idea of a country for the Jewish people). He is also terrifying Israelis, and terrified Israelis are not the sort of people who will make dangerous compromises for peace. Hunkering-down and waiting for Kerry’s ship to sail back to the U.S. is a more predictable outcome.
I don’t believe that Kerry is making a blackmailish, “Nice-Jewish-state-you-got-there-I’d hate-to-see-anything-happen-to-it” sort of threat, but many people are taking it this way, in part because the boycott movement is having its moment.
The recent controversy over the company SodaStream, which operates a factory in a West Bank settlement, has drawn attention to anti-Israel activism, in part because the company’s celebrity spokeswoman, Scarlett Johannson, chose to stay with the company after demands that she quit. (In an unusual turnaround, Johannson decided, in essence, to boycott Oxfam, the British aid group, for which she previously volunteered.) The decision by two small American academic associations to boycott Israel (alone among the nations of the world), is also giving the impression that the idea of boycotting Israel is gaining traction.
At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, Kerry did it again. In the midst of a long peroration on the benefits of a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, he raised the specter of boycotts. “You see for Israel there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up,” he said. “People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?”
I was sitting in the audience as Kerry said this, and I suddenly felt queasy. I imagine it was more the setting than his actual words. Germany, and Munich, in particular, is not the best place to raise the threat of a boycott that targets Jews. Munich is certainly the right place to discuss the essential perniciousness of such boycotts, but Kerry didn’t denounce the notion, he analyzed it.
As someone who is opposed to the settlement of the West Bank by Israelis (not because the land isn’t historically Jewish, as well as Arab, but because reality dictates that the West Bank should be the core of the Palestinian national home), I’m worried about the impact of long-term colonization. I’ve argued that the settlers are not the Zionist pioneers of their collective imagination, but instead the vanguard of binationalism. If their cause succeeds, and they somehow manage to keep Israel in functional control of the West Bank forever, then Israel will cease to be a Jewish democratic state, which would be a tragedy.
(And, by the way, should SodaStream move its plant a few miles down the road, into Israel proper? Yes, so long as it didn’t have to fire its many Palestinian employees in the process. It wouldn’t have to do a thing, of course, if the two-state solution is enacted, because it is located in an area that will probably be attached to Israel in a negotiated land-swap.)
So why do I oppose a boycott of even settler-made products? It’s a good question. Maybe one day I won’t. But I find the idea of a modern-day economic boycott that targets Jews viscerally offensive. Boycotts have been used throughout history to punish Jews, not just in Germany, and not just in the 1930s. They do not rise in perniciousness to the level of pogroms, but they can often be located on the same continuum. If the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement had any targets other than Israel -- and Israel, of course, has one of the best human rights records in the Middle East, so there are certainly candidates for boycott in its immediate vicinity -- then it might be possible to ascribe more benevolent intentions to its leaders. But this movement only has one scapegoat.
John Kerry knows all this, of course. It would wonderful for him to discuss, at length, and quite separately from matters related to settlements, or refugees, or the security of the Jordan Valley, the true nature of the boycott-Israel movement. Next year in Munich, perhaps.
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