BDS’ campaign against Israel reaching bubbling point

What might look like a trickle of sporadic economic measures might turn into a tidal wave

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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It sometimes takes the involvement of a well-known celebrity to highlight a major political controversy. The signing of Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson as the “global brand ambassador” of the West Bank-based Israeli company Sodastream was criticized by those who oppose the occupation.

The readiness of such a well-known celebrity to promote a product manufactured in the Palestinian Occupied Territories led to a stream of protestation around the world from those who sees this as legitimizing the occupation and helping to perpetuate it.

The irony of Johansson’s accepting this role, is that she is currently also serving as an Oxfam Ambassador, an organization with a longstanding record of vociferous denunciation of the Israeli occupation and the political, economic and social deprivation it causes the Palestinian people there.

Broadly speaking, the obsession with NGOs, such as Oxfam, to have celebrities promote their work, could possibly explain why the organization only issued a half-hearted rebuke regarding Ms. Johansson’s new leading role with the Israeli beverage company.

It was almost inevitable that at some point the commercial interests of these high profile personalities would clash with their charity work. However, more significantly -- although the Sodastream-Johansson connection makes good headlines -- the real story is the growing international campaign to make Israel pay for her continuance of the occupation and settlement expansion through what is known as BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

For years this movement has been gathering momentum, while Israel either underestimates this development or dismisses it as anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic in nature.

The collapse of the peace process in Camp David in 2000 followed by the Second Intifada led to despair and frustration among both Israelis and Palestinians. This resulted in a prolonged period of tit-for-tat violence and the intensification of the occupation, including the building of the security barrier. It also made it clear to many that the armed struggle against Israel would not help the Palestinians to accomplish their dream.

The BDS movement is antithetical to the use of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It believes that mobilising global civil society to exert economic pressure on Israel will cause her to become more receptive to international demands vis-à-vis her policies towards the Palestinians.

The BDS movement’s manifesto, first published back in July 2005, declares that the movement aims was to end the occupation and the building of settlements and of the security wall. Furthermore, the manifesto demands the recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. Resolution 194.

However, their third declared aim of guaranteeing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality is more problematic in the context of imposing wide range economic sanctions of Israel. To a large extent, it undermines its own campaign.

I have written many times in the past that the discrimination of Arab citizens in the Jewish state is unacceptable, and that any country who wishes to call herself a democracy has to guard the equal rights of their minorities.

However, when the BDS movement mixes between ending the Israeli occupation with securing the rights of Arab-Palestinian Israeli citizens, it unnerves many Israelis and their supporters. They suspect that the BDS movement is actually questioning the right of Israel to exist in her current framework and using the occupation as an excuse.

The call for BDS should have come as no surprise to anyone in Israel. It has been on the international agenda for a long time. The boycott campaigners understandably, though not always with great accuracy, attempt to equate the situation in Palestine to the previous apartheid regime in South Africa.

Hence, they expect that similar to the impact of the economic sanctions on bringing change in South Africa, hurting Israel economically would create enough public pressure on the Israeli government to modify its policies towards the Palestinians.

Unrealistically the BDS activists have pushed for academic, consumer and cultural boycotts in addition to sanctions and divestment. This has very little chance of succeeding because it would be regarded as too one-sided, putting the entire the blame for the lack of solutions on Israel’s shoulders, ignoring the complexity of the situation.

A more strategic approach within the international community is targeting the settlements themselves, as well as those who do business with them or facilitate their prosperity and expansion. One might argue that sweeping BDS measures, at least in the short run, might harden Israeli positions and weakened those inside the country who support a genuine peace process with the Palestinians.

Economic sanctions of the magnitude that the BDS movement would like to see are unrealistic in the foreseeable future, as they are opposed by large parts of the international community including the United States and the EU.

A more strategic approach within the international community is targeting the settlements themselves, as well as those who do business with them or facilitate their prosperity and expansion.

Yossi Mekelberg

However, the tide is turning against Israel’s settlements policy and her intransigence in the peace process. Increasingly, a precondition for international partners engaging with Israeli businesses is that Israeli businesses are not linked in any shape or form with the settlements in the West Bank.

It was reported that even Germany, who is always extremely cautious in such matters, made it clear to Israel that grants for Israeli high-tech companies and the renewal of a scientific cooperation agreement depends on the exclusion of Israeli entities based in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Discussions on such steps have been deliberated in the corridors in Brussels for many years.

International support

The Horizon 2020 scientific cooperation agreement, as well the demand by the EU that any Israeli entity applying for grants will have to declare that it has no direct or indirect links to the Occupied Territories including East Jerusalem, represents this development.

The British government recently warned businesses about ‘reputational implications’ of getting involved in economic and financial activities in settlements.

In the United States, Israel’s closest ally, academic organisations, such as the Association for Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association, voted on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions and the Modern Language Association, that has nearly 30,000 members, called the State Department to condemn Israel for the way it treats Palestinian academics in the West Bank.

The debate about the justification, motivations and effectiveness of punishing Israel with large scale BDS ¬ between those who support it and those who oppose it ¬ will no doubt rage in the coming weeks and months. However, whatever the merits or shortcomings of imposing economic sanctions on Israel, time works against her.

What might look like a trickle of sporadic economic measures might turn into a tidal wave of BDS, if the Israelis and the Palestinians fail to conclude a peace agreement sooner rather than later.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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