In the ten years since it commenced, the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) has slowly but steadily risen in visibility. Today, both the Israeli government and some in the U.S. are presenting it as an existential threat to Israel. Therefore, it is important to determine exactly what we’re talking about when we discuss BDS and it is equally important that we take a critical look at what its real impact is.
What is BDS?
The movement began in July 2005 with a joint call from a wide array of Palestinian civil society organizations, with three main demands: An end to the occupation that began in 1967; equal rights for Palestinians citizens within Israel; and protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is today Israel. The call was issued during the second intifada in part to present a non-violent alternative to what was perceived as the failure of armed struggle to achieve these goals.
The term “BDS” is widely understood to refer to the network of grassroots activists who are part of a global movement responding to this call to encourage boycotts of, divestment from, and ultimately international sanctions against Israel to achieve these goals. Groups and individuals involved in this network hold a variety of views on ultimate solutions to the conflict, but it is fair to say that the most visible leaders of the BDS movement generally support a vision of a single, secular and democratic state in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
This movement – its goals and its activism – is distinct from the many peace activists in Israel, Palestine, the United States and elsewhere, who confine their efforts to calls for boycotts of settlement products and divestment from businesses profiting from the 48-year old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Those groups take great pains to confine their efforts to Israel’s settlements and its occupation, while avoiding any such actions against Israel within its internationally recognized boundaries.
Crucially, the BDS movement is also distinct from recent actions by the European Union and the governments of many member states to distinguish between Israel within the pre-1967 lines – known as the Green Line – and the occupied territories. A July 2015 report by the European Council on Foreign Relations emphasizes that these actions and policies do not represent a policy shift by the European Union, but simply more faithful adherence to the EU’s existing laws.
Blurring the Green Line: Netanyahu, Congress and BDS working together
The key distinction is between Israel within the Green Line, and the occupied territories. Israel is understandably concerned about the potential consequences of Europe, its largest trading partner, more energetically enforcing their laws that make this distinction. For years, the EU has looked the other way on these regulations in the hope that the occupation would soon end and that the differentiation between Israel and the settlements would become moot.
More recently, as the peace process has stalled, the EU has renewed an effort to begin enforcing their existing laws more aggressively. The labeling of products imported from the settlements, rather than from Israel, is only the first step in this process. These laws are fully consistent with long-standing American policy that similarly does not recognize the legitimacy of Israeli settlements, unless and until their status is redefined in negotiations.
In Washington, the issue of BDS tends to be exaggerated, inflating the threat Israel faces apparently in order to produce legislation that would fundamentally alter the character of US foreign policy. For example, with the ostensible intention of protecting Israel from BDS, a provision was added to the recently passed Trade Promotion Authority bill (the so-called “fast track legislation) that requires the U.S. Trade Representative to discourage European Union countries from boycotting “Israel or persons doing business in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories” as part of free-trade negotiations between the U.S. and the EU.
The amendment treats Israel and the occupied territories as one unit, erasing the Green Line. Israel extends its law over its settlements, and many Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, regard the settlements as Israeli neighborhoods. However, neither the United States nor any other country has ever accepted this, and has always differentiated between the settlements and Israel proper. Blurring this important distinction could set a dangerous precedent for treating Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 lines no differently from the internationally recognized State of Israel. At the very least, it would create confusion amongst the United States’ allies as to what US policy regarding the occupied territories and their ultimate disposition really is.
It is important to recall that U.S. law already protects Israel against boycotts initiated by foreign governments. The Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Ribicoff Amendment to the Tax Reform Act of 1976 were enacted to protect Israel from the Arab League’s boycott against the State of Israel. The amendment to the fast-track bill adds nothing in this regard. Rather, it serves only one purpose: protecting settlements from pressure. This motivated the quiet lobbying the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) did to push this amendment.
Ironically, this very conflation is precisely what the most radical elements in the BDS movement strive to achieve. Those who believe that the only solution to the conflict is the end of Israel as a Jewish state and the creation of a single state in its place reject any distinction between, for example, the settlement of Ariel in the occupied territories and the city of Tel Aviv. Similarly, those who support a messianic vision of “Greater Israel,” which requires permanent Israeli control of the occupied territories, reject any distinction between Haifa and the settlements inside Hebron. For those who support a two-state solution that includes a secure, democratic and Jewish state of Israel living side by side with a secure, viable and independent Palestinian state, this conflation is extremely problematic.
What is the real impact of the global BDS movement?
There is no evidence that the European Union’s policies and actions regarding settlements are based on the actions of the BDS movement. On the contrary, it is the collapse of the peace process, the deepening of Israel’s occupation and the possible foreclosure of the two-state solution that have motivated these European moves.
In a letter to European Union Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini in April, sixteen European Foreign Ministers urged the labelling of products originating in the settlements, writing that: “European consumers must indeed have confidence in knowing the origin of goods they are purchasing. Green Line Israel and Palestinian producers will benefit from this.” Far from being motivated by the BDS movement, the ministers made it clear that it was the stalled peace process that provided the impetus for their recommendation. The goal was, in their words, “the preservation of the two-state solution.”
Likewise in the United States, the most prominent examples of concrete boycott- and divestment-related activism in the Israeli-Palestinian arena have focused unambiguously not on Israel but on the settlements and the occupation. These developments are the product of frustration with the failure of diplomacy to bring an end to the occupation, and a desire to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution.
As in Europe, the actions involved are distinct from the efforts and goals of the BDS movement. For example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) heard a great deal from the BDS movement over the years in which it debated the decision it eventually adopted in 2014 to divest from companies it believed were profiting from Israel’s occupation. Yet the Church made it clear in its decision that it was not acting in concert with the BDS movement, but from its own principles – and it focused its activism not on Israel, but explicitly on the occupied territories.
After the vote to divest, PC (USA) issued a statement saying, “[O]ur action to selectively divest was not in support of the global BDS movement. Instead it is one of many examples of our commitment to ethical investing. We are pressed and challenged to follow our faith values and commitments in all times and in all areas of our lives. The occupation must end. All peoples in Israel and Palestine should live in security, freedom, and peace. This action is but one aspect of our commitment to work to this end.”
PC (USA) went on to explicitly reiterate its support for the existence of the State of Israel and for the two-state solution, clarifying that, “This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC (USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”
As of today, the BDS movement, in and of itself, is not a threat to Israel, either economically or in terms of security. The main impact of the BDS movement has been in generating an often-divisive debate, on American campuses, among academics faced with campaigns for academic boycotts and in getting a handful of celebrities to cancel or publicly declare their intent not to perform in Israel.
A very unfortunate response to the BDS movement has been the refusal, in many instances, to allow BDS activists to speak their piece in open debate. This attempt at ostracization, however, has backfired. It has provided the basis for the BDS movement to promote itself on free speech grounds, an argument which wins much more widespread sympathy than one that proposes economic action against Israel.
Moreover, the focus on the BDS movement too often ignores the main reason for its continued growth: the failure to end Israel’s occupation that began in 1967 and achieve Palestinian national liberation and sovereignty. The surest way to take the wind out of the BDS sails would be to work diligently to achieve those goals, and act against efforts that prevent them. An independent, sovereign and viable Palestine sharing peace, trade and security with Israel removes the impetus for both BDS and the often overly aggressive tactics being employed against it.