Boycotts, divestment and sanctions are not the answer

Galit Lev-Harir is a frequent contributor to the Light. Galit lived in Israel for nine years. She and her husband, Elie Harir, are members of Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Galit Lev-Harir

A growing number of pro-Israel Jews, including a student leader at UCLA Hillel, have suggested recently that the pro-Israel movement should consider boycotts, divestment and sanctions as possible measures to pressure the Israeli government to make concessions to the Palestinians. 

Some argue that such measures are necessary given the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his election-day announcement that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch. Others wonder, now that Netanyahu has been elected, what steps American Jews can take to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel are problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that their application hurts the very people they are meant to support. A case in point is that of SodaStream, an Israeli company that produces carbonated drink machines. SodaStream had operated a factory in the West Bank that employed 500 Palestinians as well as 450 Israeli Arabs and 350 Israeli Jews. However, after intense pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the company decided to move its factory within the Green Line, where it will no longer employ any West Bank Palestinians.

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Many BDS proponents imply that the reason for considering such measures at this time is to “punish” Israel for electing Netanyahu. They suggest that BDS measures would not have been necessary if Israel had elected a left wing government. It is disturbing to think that Americans, who supposedly recognize the validity of the democratic process, want to punish a foreign government because their preferred candidate lost. 

Can you imagine American citizens advocating sanctions against the United Kingdom because its  Conservative and Unionist Party gained more votes than the Labour Party in the most recent election? Would the United States feel betrayed? Similarly, would Americans feel the need to interfere in France because the Union for a Popular Movement gained more votes than the Socialist Party? The analogies are appropriate, because, like Israel, both the U.K. and France have alternated between stable coalitions on the political right and left. And yet, we as Americans respect the right of the people living in those countries to elect their own governments. Why do we not afford the same respect to Israel?

Those who consider BDS as acceptable tactics against Israel claim that such measures are necessary to persuade Israel to make concessions for peace. However, in the past 17 years, Israeli governments have demonstrated their willingness to sign peace proposals on five occasions: 1998 (Wye River), 2000 (Camp David), 2001 (Taba), 2002 (Elon Peace Plan), and 2011 (the Israeli Peace Initiative). 

These agreements proposed establishing a Palestinian state on up to 97 percent of the West Bank as well as a safe passage corridor between the West Bank and Gaza. All of these proposals were rejected by the Palestinian Authority and, to this day, the PA has not put forward a single counter-proposal. 

Perhaps it is not the Israelis who need to be pressured? Perhaps concerned American Jews should consider pressuring America to pressure the Palestinian Authority instead?

The Palestinian Authority is adamant in its refusal to consider coexistence with Israel. The most common refrain heard at pro-Palestinian rallies is: “Palestine will be free — from the river to the sea!” This clearly expresses the hope that a Palestinian state will exist from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea – i.e., on the current land of Israel within the Green Line! In other words, the Palestinians do not promote compromise; when they refer to “occupation,” they are referencing the entire land of Israel.

As hopeless as it seems today, there exists a historic opportunity to pressure the Palestinians to accept a peace agreement. This opportunity exists because Israel shares a common strategic interest with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and other Sunni majority countries. All of these countries seek to curb the influence of Shiite Iran and the Islamic State group. Recent editorials in Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera expressed support for Netanyahu’s speech to Congress warning of the dangers of signing an agreement with Iran and, last week, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab countries in initiating military operations against the pro-Iranian Houthi government in Yemen. 

Tragically, I don’t expect that President Barack Obama’s administration will take advantage of the opportunity to build a peace proposal with the support of Israel and her moderate neighbors. Relations between the administration and those Arab countries are almost as frosty as the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, and the moderate Arab countries perceive that Obama is warmer toward the Iranians than to the Sunni majority countries who are long-term allies of the United States. 

Proof that a historic opportunity for a peace agreement exists is evidenced by the fact that last week, the Jerusalem Post reported that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi put forward a proposal to give the Palestinians 1,600 square kilometers of land in Sinai adjacent to Gaza, which would expand the Gaza Strip to five times its current size. Sisi proposed that the new territory, together with Gaza, would be a demilitarized state that would serve as a home to which Palestinians could return. Israel has expressed support for the idea; however, it was immediately rejected by Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. If the Obama administration and “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocates like J Street were to endorse the proposal, they could potentially pressure the Palestinian Authority to accept the deal.

To recap, pro-Israel groups who are considering the application of boycotts, divestment and sanctions should consider the following:

• Boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli companies operating in the West Bank will have the effect of hurting the Palestinian populace, some of whom depend on Israeli factories for employment.

• Israel has historically supported peace initiatives and will do so again if presented with an opportunity to end the conflict with the Palestinians while ensuring Israeli security.

• The Palestinian Authority has historically opposed peace initiatives and coexistence with Israel.

• American Jews should use their influence to pressure the U.S. government to build a strong coalition with moderate Arab countries that can then pressure the Palestinians to accept a peace agreement with Israel.

Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be achieved only when both sides realize they have more to gain by making peace than by making war. Egypt and Jordan have already come to this realization. With their help, the Palestinians could be persuaded as well. 

I fervently hope that Americans Jews will support this strategy so that we will be able to see an end to the long-term conflict that continues to plague our brothers and sisters in Israel. But in no way are boycotts, divestment or sanctions the answer.