Not long ago, I was on a panel following a documentary by a Palestinian filmmaker, about life in both Gaza and the West Bank these days. The question and answer period, as usual, was far-ranging, and one person asked the filmmaker whether or not he thought Israel was an apartheid state. I loved his answer.
In essence, he said that whether one says yes or no to that question depends on whether one envisions two states in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River or one. If you see two states, then this is a situation of military occupation along with illegal settlements. If you see one state, then, indeed, it is apartheid.
I thought this was a brilliant answer. And it is tied to the tiresome complaints about the “de-legitimization campaign” against Israel. I call it tiresome because it pre-supposes an Israeli vulnerability that clearly does not exist and tries to paint the harsh criticism that Israeli policy sometimes merits as being an attack on the right of the Jewish people to a homeland.
Sometimes it is, of course, just that. But more often, it is simply outrage at Israeli policy. Perhaps that outrage is wrong-headed or exaggerated in some cases, but that doesn’t mean the critique is meant to undermine Israel’s existence.
In any case, if Israel is really worried about its “legitimacy” in the eyes of the world, it should consider how it thinks of the West Bank.
The problem is visible in the way both citizens and government officials talk about the settlements, and it struck me today as I read an article in Yediot Ahoronot about a Norwegian decision not to invest in two companies which have a long history of construction work in settlements and of the Separation Barrier. (You can read the original Hebrew article at this link)
Here is the quote that caught my eye: Chairman of the Manufacturers Association of Israel Shraga Brosh said yesterday that “from time to time, various bodies, mainly Scandinavian, boycott one company or another from Israel. In the end, these are pinpointed events that do not affect trade with Israel as a whole.”
If there is one point peace activists have to make it is this: Ariel and the other settlements are not part of Israel. Brosh’s terminology clearly implies the opposite. Of course, in economic terms, all of this is Israeli business, and one can understand someone in Brosh’s position thinking this way—the numbers are the numbers, and they all matter equally for Israel’s economy, which is part of the problem.
The basis of the anti-occupation/two-state movement is that the settlements are illegal, illegitimate and a major obstacle to resolving the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The discourse that considers the West Bank part of Israel makes compromise much more difficult. After all, if Israelis (as well as some in the Diaspora) see conceding the West Bank as giving up part of Israel, that makes it a much more difficult compromise to sell than if they see it as withdrawing from occupied territory.
One can see the thinking even in the article’s main text: In recent months, there has been an escalation in the boycott of Israeli brands for political reasons.
The article offers no evidence to back that up, and indeed, there does not appear to be any because it doesn’t appear to be true. There is, however, an escalation in a boycott of settlement brands. And that is a very different thing.
Indeed, if the fear is that Israel will somehow become an “illegitimate” state (although in international affairs, that is a meaningless phrase), the best way to do it is to consider Israel as encompassing territory beyond the Green Line. It is the collapsing of a boycott against settlement products with a boycott of Israel as a whole that opens the door to apartheid accusations, as that Palestinian filmmaker pointed out, and to the “threat” of de-legitimization.
The pro-Israel, pro-peace movement should be embracing the boycott of settlement products. The reasons are both ideological and practical. Ideologically, we need to draw a distinction between Israel and the settlements, and we need to make opposition to the latter as uncompromising as support of the former.
On the practical level, this is something that both Israelis and Diaspora Jews can do to prevent the continued entrenchment of the settlements. It may already be too little too late, but a trend that pushes businesses to separate themselves from the settlements can only help. In the public mind it increases the image of the settlements as being something separate from Israel, and on the ground, it makes it easier to leave the settlements if Israeli business is less tangled with the settlements.
The two-state/pro-Israel peace movement has allowed the global BDS movement, which is a mixed bag, to completely own all forms of economic action. But the truth is, boycotting settlement products and civil action to divorce Israeli businesses from the settlements are acts that are very much in Israel’s interests and can effectively promote peace. But if we leave such actions only in the hands of those who do not care or are openly hostile to Israel, we are abdicating a powerful tool.
I am on record as opposing the BDS movement. But it is absurd to say that economic action opposing the occupation is by definition anti-Israel. It’s time for supporters of Israel who also oppose the settlements to take back this tool.