To BDS or not to BDS – Why Boycotts, Disinvestments and Sanctions against Israel are Counterproductive
For people seeking a just, equitable and peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue, the question has arisen of the purpose and impact of the call for Boycotts, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) on the state of Israel. Invariably proponents of the BDS campaign draw analogies between Israel and sanctions introduced against Apartheid South Africa. The BDS movement calls for “the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the Apartheid era. … until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law”.
In this regard imposing BDS is a tactic for exerting pressure and could, just as appropriately, be applied, for example, to China in support of the Tibetans, Indonesia in support of the West Papuans, or Russia in support of the Chechens. Tactics however must suit the context and should have some realistic chance of contributing towards the intended objective. My position is that BDS is actually counterproductive to its intended purpose and in fact could have a negative impact on achieving a just peace in the Middle East, and that the analogy between Apartheid South Africa and Israel is superficial and inaccurate.
Israel is a recognised member of the United Nations. South Africa was not regarded as a legitimate regime; the UN declared Apartheid a crime against humanity and South Africa was suspended from membership. The UN General Assembly imposed the first set of economic sanctions on South Africa in 1962, although international campaigns were required to both strengthen and enforce sanctions. No UN sanctions have been endorsed against Israel.
Sanctions against South Africa were designed to bring down the Apartheid state and replace it with one unified state with majority rule. The BDS call is to support the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination however the BDS Movement does not give any indication as to what form that inalienable right will take. In the unlikely event that the BDS movement achieves its aim of bringing Israel to its knees, it is unclear what outcome the BDS proponents foresee. Some might visualise the eventual destruction of the Israeli state. One of the founders of the BDS Movement, Omar Barghouti, is quoted as saying “a Palestine next to a Palestine, rather than a Palestine next to an Israel”.
Accordingly, the key question for BDS proponents is whether they accept the existence of the state of Israel. I do, recognising that both Jews and Palestinians have countless generations of unbroken occupancy of the land, that Israel is home for millions of Jewish people and that legitimate Palestinian aspirations are best met by the creation of their own unified state. The Australian Greens also take this position calling for “the creation of a viable state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel based on the pre 1967 borders and the right of all peoples in the region to peace”.
In Apartheid South Africa the call for sanctions was a key demand of the African National Congress (ANC) and supported by its allies. They recognised that sanctions would have an important impact driving White South Africans towards acceptance of majority rule. The same situation does not pertain to Israel-Palestine; the Palestinian authority and al Fatah, along with progressive Israeli organisations such as Gush Shalom call for a limited campaign of boycott and sanction directed against the Occupation and the West Bank Settlements. The BDS movement acknowledges this, stating that “the BDS campaign is not a Palestinian government initiative” but they then blur the distinction between the West Bank settlements and Israel by citing support from people who call for boycotts on the West Bank settlements, while also demanding boycotts of Israelis who hold the same position.
Unquestionably sanctions against Apartheid South Africa were important both economically and morally. Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery cites a discussion on the impact of sanctions with South African Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu. In 1989, the moderate white leader, Frederic Willem de Klerk, was elected President of South Africa. Upon assuming office he declared his intention to set up a multiracial regime. Tutu says “I called to congratulate him, and the first thing he said was: Will you now call off the boycott?”
While economically impacted by sanctions the Apartheid government did find ways to bypass them. Manufactured products did not display country of origin and continued to be sold throughout Africa; a government owned company called SASOL was formed that used a highly-polluting process to convert coal into oil; South Africa and Israel secretly shared military technology. But the biggest impact on South Africa was on morale – they felt rejected by the world and they were denied access to sporting links (like Australians, South Africans are sports mad, imagine the reaction here if international sporting links were broken).
While sanctions hurt South Africa the ANC cadre that I knew and worked with commonly cited three primary reasons for the fall of Apartheid:
First, internally the United Democratic Front (UDF) campaign of mass civil disobedience was making the country ungovernable.
Second, in 1986 the battle of Cuito Carnivale in Angola – when Cuban, Angolan and ANC forces fought the South African military machine to a standstill – started the strategic retreat of Apartheid.
Third, and significantly, was the collapse of Soviet bloc. The new global political climate associated with the end of the Cold War gave the South African government the confidence to boldly move into unbanning the ANC and entering into negotiations.
Many readers of this article may well have seen the movie Invictus which deals with the period in South Africa immediately after democratic rule was achieved in 1994. The movie highlights the attention Nelson Mandela gave to understanding the Afrikaner psyche, and the concessions he was prepared to make, even in defiance of his own party, to accommodate their interests so that they could learn to accept living under Black majority rule (something they had been raised to believe was unfathomable). It is a lesson many could learn including, it would seem, the proponents of BDS.
To form insights into the emotions and motives of the ‘other’ is to be able to appreciate base concerns which can lead to accommodation of interests, and in return compromise and concession from them. Without this insight it is questionable whether any resolution can be achieved. I continue to be surprised by the number of compassionate Jews who display little empathy for what the Nakba and 43 years of Occupation means for Palestinians. Political progressives often find common ground with progressive Jews and then fail to understand why there is a sudden differentiation when it comes to the Israel-Palestine question. Likewise, an unfavourable comparison between Israel and Apartheid South Africa unintentionally or otherwise antagonises many Jews. The legacy of the Holocaust makes comparison with an ideology that had fascist origins offensive and diminishes opportunities for compromise or even dialogue.
The legacy of centuries of persecution has undoubtedly impacted on the Jewish psyche. Insecurity and mistrust lead many to perceive the world as an existentialist military threat. If a just resolution to the conflict is to be achieved then it has to be premised on Israel knowing that its continued existence is guaranteed and not threatened. Israel needs to feel the sense of security to be flexible and accommodating to the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for their own state. The BDS campaign is unlikely to soften the attitude of Israeli people; rather it will reinforce the view that “the whole world is still against us”. Accordingly BDS is defeatist as it despairs of the possibility that Israel can be a partner for peace.
There is another corollary from South Africa that for the Middle East context remains aspirational. The period from February 1990 (when the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released from prison) and April 1994 (when the first all-inclusive democratic elections were held) is a positive example of how previously implacably opposed foes were able to negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution. During the negotiation period extremists from both left and right, along with an insidious ‘Third Force’ associated with Apartheid security agencies, were instigating violence and setting off bombs in an attempt to derail the movement towards democracy. On more than one occasion the country was on the verge of civil war. The South African Human Rights Commission has estimated that during this period up to 15,000 people died as a result of political violence.
In this context that South Africa was able to successfully transition to democratic rule is testament to the political will of the leadership of all the parties involved. Instead of using politically instigated violence as a pretext to cancel negotiations in fact it became a reason to push ahead and reach agreement. In the Middle East, while there have been times when it appeared that agreement has been in reach, unfortunately the political will to overcome the final hurdles has been lacking. In writing this I am not apportioning responsibility for failure (I will leave the finger pointing blame game to others), rather highlighting that it is only rarely that maturity of political leadership from all sides exists in sufficient quantity to reach a solution, and that it is achievable and we must keep on trying.
BDS extends to the boycott of joint Palestinian-Israeli dialogue promoting peace-building initiatives such as Combatants for Peace, Parents Circle and the Hand in Hand Schools. It means cutting ties with advocates of the stature of Uri Avnery. Efforts have already been made to impose a boycott on the Said-Barenboim Foundation and its associated West Eastern Divan Orchestra.
In summary, while boycotts against Apartheid South Africa contributed to pressure that led to the negotiated dismantlement of the Apartheid system, BDS against the existing state of Israel will not further peace initiatives but polarise positions and diminish opportunities for achieving a just outcome.
Phillip Walker was the Greens candidate for Caulfield in the 2010 State election and for Melbourne Ports in the 2007 Federal election. From 1991 to 2000 he lived in South Africa and was a member of the African National Congress (ANC). He is writing in his personal capacity.