Opinionista David Bilchitz 30 April 2019

If you want to entrench the Occupation, boycott Israel

For anyone interested in peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, the likely continuation of the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu is deeply depressing.

During the recent Israeli elections, Benjamin Netanyahu courted right-wing extremist parties and articulated a narrow nationalist vision of the Israeli polity, alienating and actively marginalising Arab citizens of Israel.

He appears to support the status quo of enhancing Israeli prosperity while entrenching the Occupation of the Palestinian territories. With major corruption charges hanging over his head, many well-intentioned people wonder what it will take to dislodge Netanyahu from power and shift the dynamics of the Israeli polity in a trajectory that offers the hope of peace between the two peoples, self-determination for Palestinians and an end to the human rights abuses associated with the Occupation?

A common response in South Africa has been to see the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through our own historical experience. Israeli policies today have been compared to apartheid and the response, it is argued, should be similar: Boycott Israel.

Thus, the University of Cape Town senate will, once again, shortly after the South African elections, be presented with a case for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. If we take the underlying motivation in good faith, the idea appears to be that it will be necessary for the Israeli polity (the stronger party in the conflict) to be subjected to moral opprobrium from the rest of the world and to experience some negative consequences if the majority is to change its bad behaviour.

This case has seduced many, yet it is fundamentally flawed. In my view, it is more likely to entrench the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians rather than to bring it to a timely and much-needed resolution. Why?

The problem is that the boycott initiatives in relation to Israel are part of a co-ordinated boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement which, as part of its ideology, negates the legitimacy of Israel as a state. Indeed, it is premised upon seeing the arrival of Jews in Israel as a form of “settler colonialism” focused on displacing the indigenous Palestinian population.

Its demand for the right of return for what its website estimates as 7.25 million refugees clearly envisages the end to Israel as a legitimate expression of Jewish self-determination (recognised by the international community as such since the adoption of the 1947 UN partition plan).

In short, the BDS movement and its normative underpinnings (which can be freely accessed on its own website), clearly is premised upon the Jewish majority in Israel voluntarily acknowledging its own illegitimacy and being prepared to preside over the dissolution of its state. BDS perpetuates the notion that there is a zero-sum game between Jewish and Palestinian claims to Israel.

This approach is manna from heaven for Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition partners. His fundamental mantra in refusing to change the status quo has been that there is no “partner for peace” among the Palestinians and that, as a nation, they remain committed to the destruction of Israel.

The right-wing narrative sees Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip as having led not to peaceful co-existence, but the assumption of power by Hamas, a manifestly antisemitic grouping dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

The BDS movement is seen as a continuation of Palestinian attempts to destroy Israel, this time not through armed forces, but through threats to its economic, cultural and academic success, being reminiscent of decades of direct and indirect boycotts by Arab countries. Jews also have long memories of antisemitic boycotts of Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany, for instance, and the current BDS movement plays into these traumas and exacerbates them, something to which it is tone-deaf.

For the Israeli right, it is once again a zero-sum game between Israeli and Palestinians claims, a situation it uses to grab more Palestinian land and deepen the Occupation.

The way to move forward out of this morass is to reject the underpinnings of these views which are surprisingly similar between the Israeli right-wing and BDS supporters: The logic of either/or.

If the choice must be between either Israel or Palestine, one people must be the loser. Yet, there is no need to accept this bind: Both peoples can and must co-exist together. That requires Israelis and Palestinians to accept that both peoples have a deep and meaningful story around their connection to the land and tremendous pain flowing from the century-long struggle between them.

It requires dislodging genocidal fantasies that either of the peoples will disappear or give up their claims and undertaking the hard work of entrenching a long-term institutional blueprint to give expression to both their claims for national self-determination. There is, in fact, incredible opportunity for co-operation and engagement between Israelis and Palestinians, both industrious and creative peoples.

Reaching such a state of affairs requires the adoption of strategies of struggle and theories of change that do not undermine this vision. That is why — apart from reasons relating to the very serious threats general academic boycotts pose to the global academic project and their questionable efficacy — UCT academics should, in my view, reject the latest boycott initiative which only will reinforce the polarisation between the two sides. In fact, it will play into right-wing narratives and further entrench the Occupation.

If academics and others want to contribute to ending the stalemate, the reality is that it is necessary to re-ignite hope among both Israelis and Palestinians that a future of peaceful co-operation and co-existence is possible.

That requires, in my view, the creation of a global movement that crosses the divides between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims and commits to a vision of a future where the individual and collective rights of both peoples are affirmed and defended.

There are some small such initiatives at present — such as the organisation Women Wage Peace — but they need to become the dominant voice that challenges the current oppositional politics, and this will take work and dedication.

Building such a united front — which, let us be quite clear, will be non-violent and firmly opposed to the legitimisation or expansion of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories — could truly shift the sands from under rejectionists both from the right and the left and lead to a better and more hopeful future for Israelis and Palestinians. DM

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