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Why an economic boycott of Israel cannot succeed

And why it might even hinder a political solution.

By Yonathan Mizrachi

A woman carries a sign in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, October 11, 2011 (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A woman carries a sign in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, October 11, 2011 (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Political movements calling for an economic boycott of Israel are working to advance a model based on the boycott of Apartheid South Africa and the critical role it played in ending white minority rule in that country. The parallel drawn between the economic boycott of South Africa and the one advanced by Palestinians and pro-Palestinians activists against Israel reinforces the view that Israel is an apartheid state.

However without going into the question of whether Israel is an apartheid state, it is clear that one of the central motives underlying the boycott is anger toward Israel and its policies in the occupied territories, and the need to take action based on ethical standards. Despite the anger and the justified criticism of Israel, the economic boycott is destined to fail.

Take the political map in the 1990s compared to today. When the Eastern Bloc was in the process of dissolution and began its first steps toward Westernization, the West was at the peak of its political power. The collapse of significant political and military threats after more than four decades of the Cold War, along with the formation of the European Union, left no room for doubt regarding the undisputed status of Western states in global politics.

In those years, the GDP of Western Europe, North America, Australia and Japan comprised 62 percent of the world economy (according to the world GDP in 1991). If we add the newly-democratized states of Eastern Europe and the democracies of the Far East, such as South Korea, to the list, we will find that Western democracies controlled two thirds of the world economy.

Twenty-five years later, the same countries make up only 38.8 percent of global GDP (including Japan and not including the other Asian countries and Eastern Europe). Thus, economically speaking, a boycott by Western states would be less effective today than in the past.

Israeli minister: Make BDS activists ‘pay a price’

Although Europe succeeded in affecting the economy of a strong state like Russia through sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine, Russian policy remained unchanged. The most notable case where economic pressure did is Iran. But can boycotting Israel have the same effect? In looking at the world political map in the context of Israel, it is safe to assume that countries such as the United States, Germany, Britain, and likely France and Italy, will not support a boycott of Israel. The overall GDP of these countries comprises 26.3 percent of the global economy. It is also uncertain that countries such as Japan, Spain and others will support a boycott of Israel.

Furthermore, if we look at the countries considered most pro-Palestinian, we see that the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands constitute less than 2 percent of the world GDP. That is, even if these states support a full boycott, and it is reasonable to assume that they will not, their influence will be negligible.

Anti-BDS posters adorn the walls of the Jerusalem Convention Center during the first ever conference to combat BDS in Israel, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Anti-BDS posters adorn the walls of the Jerusalem Convention Center during the first ever conference to combat BDS in Israel, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

If we assume that economic boycott will take the form of a worldwide consumer boycott — rather than becoming official policy at the state level — Israel’s central economic sectors would still remain unharmed. The chances that the security, diamond, chemistry and technology industries will be harmed due to a consumer boycott are slim. Consumers may buy fewer dates from the Jordan Valley, but they won’t buy fewer weapons.

When we look into the ability of an economic boycott to affect the Israeli government’s occupation policies, it is impossible not to conclude that it is ineffective. Calling for an economic boycott of Israel is based on an ethical view and desire to punish Israel for its actions. But Israel manages to leverage the boycott for its own benefit and argue that the idea of economic boycott manifests a classic anti-Semitic trope that, first and foremost, identifies the Jew with greed and desire for money. This is an image that the Western world is trying to shake off, while the Israeli public easily buys into Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rhetoric, which ties the boycott to anti-Semitism.

For all these reasons, the battle against occupation cannot be an economic one. This does not mean that one should buy products from West Bank settlements. But as the boycott movement gains popularity, it is important to remember that ethical activity does not necessarily change reality. On the contrary, in this case, it only leads each side to become further ensconced in their own sense of victimhood — a situation that is bound to distance, rather than advance, a political solution.

The author is an archaeologist and director of Emek Shaveh. 

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    1. yahav

      BDS is part of changing the discussion on Israel. It’s effectiveness can be measured in the counter BDS conferences and panics that are popping up in Israel. in the best case it will wake up a dormant liberal section of Israeli society that values its ties to Europe and North America. if not, it will keep growing as Israeli politics spiral to the far right. many of those European countries you mention will change their position when they see their allies in the labour party are being replaced permanently with Lieberman and friends

      Reply to Comment
    2. Not convinced by the weak arguments and especially that bds will be counterproductive even though that is a subheadline no where is this argument explained in an effective way.

      If people have better ideas that BDS fine, if not what is the problem it is a public nonviolent effort that everyone can join

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jerebiah

      BDS ensures the supremacy of the Israeli right. Since it is seen in Israel, justly in my opinion, as a movement whose goal is the destruction of the Jewish State, anyone siding with it or with its arguments is seen as a traitor. The Israeli right uses it to crucify the Israeli left, which is the reason for the anti-BDS conferences and the like in Israel. It is incredibly effective in pushing society further to the right. Given that this makes any outcome that BDS would like to pursue far less likely it seems rather counterproductive. The biggest problem with BDS is that it has been incredibly ineffective in causing any damage to the Israeli economy. So, bottom line is that it helps the right while causing no damage to the Israeli economy. The current government and public sentiment is right-wing. It is hard to see how it isn’t shooting itself, as well as any other hope for peace, in their collective feet.

      Reply to Comment
    4. The author argues basically that “countries such as the United States, Germany, Britain, and likely France and Italy, will not support a boycott of Israel”, but he is really talking about the governments of those countries. BDS is a grassroots movement, a people’s movement.
      I don’t think many governments supported BDS against South Africa, at least for a long while. The movement endured and eventually grew and changed minds and eventually Apartheid in SA was no more.
      I do not currently know of any other really effective, non-violent way to try to improve the situation for Palestinians than BDS and effective education/demonstration/outreach to show what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.
      Does the author have any ideas, or is he a “useful idiot” or shill for the Israeli government, trying to dissuade people from using the tactic of BDS?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Weiss

      The arrogance of this author is unbecoming of 972 Mag.

      The sheer desperation of Israel’s Right Wing rants against the Boycott demonstrates how EFFECTIVE the Boycott really is…

      And this blatant hit piece is in that vein…

      Reply to Comment
    6. i_like_ike52

      Informative piece. The fact of the matter is that the large majority of people in the world, including the Muslims states of the Middle East, couldn’t care less about Israel, the Palestinians, the settlements and the such in an active political sense. Regarding the Muslims states we see that there is little public angst about the fratricidal slaughter their fellow Muslims are inflicting on each other, so there while there is strong dislike of Israel, it is not something that they spend their time thinking about .
      It is true that there is a noisy minority, particularly in Europe that spends much of its free time worrying about the Palestinians, but, again they are a small minority. Indeed, in some countries like Ireland or Germany there is widespread dislike of Israel, if not outright hatred, but this is not necessarily political and doesn’t necessarily translate into active support for consumer boycotts. For comparison, we see that Israelis for years have bought German and Turkish products in spite of widespread past or present antisemitism. Thus, there is separation between emotions and political/economic behavior in most people.

      Reply to Comment
    7. BergerV.

      this article can be resumed into a few words: bds israel all u want, us, uk, ger, fr won’t ever stop buying weapons. aha.
      But it is a big lie and a very obtuse way of thinking. As the world hadn’t change a bit, as empires hadn’t collapsed. People who love Israel should be supporting BDS since it is the only movement who is calling the incredible racism and apartheid regime they have. No society can survive healthily to this. And normally countries pay the price of its own mistakes within their own borders and at the hands of their own people.
      Look, today we are seeing how a donald trump is running for president of the U.S. 10 years ago that was a joke. So… i wouldn’t bet on the support of the “eternal” allies as strategy the same kind of articles were published by south Africa Apartheid Supporters back in the day…

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mike

      The basic BDS philosophy seems to be that the Israel Palestinian conflict is a zero plus game. That the more israel is hurt the more successful Palestine becomes. The opposite is true. First, economic cooperation between their two intertwined economies benefits both sides, especially Palestinians who now live in a kleptocracy. And second, the more Israelis see a Palestine that is prosperous, democratic and less confrontational, the less they will point to the example of the Gaza withdrawal and the establishment of Hamas, who have ruined the lives of Palestinians in a crazy attempt to ruin the lives of Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Theresa

      An archeologist tries to prove something he clearly doesn’t understand – take his description of the BDS movement’s purpose, to “punish” Israel. Maybe some BDS activists have that motivation. But why wouldn’t this author make the small effort of looking at the stated goals of the BDS movement, easily found online? Ending the occupation, equal rights for Palestinian Israelis, respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of the Palestinian refugees. Not a word about punishing Israel. Those goals are the only purpose one can safely and accurately assign to BDS action.

      Quoting economic stats and comparing the geopolitical conditions existing today and in the past sounds very erudite and might be convincing to some readers. Yet nothing is proved! There are SO many variables in all the factors he raises, NO ONE on earth can know how successful BDS will be in reaching its goals.

      When I first read the Communist Manifesto in college, I was struck by this statement in the Foreword:”The inevitable rarely ever happens” – a comment on Marx’s certainty that he could predict the future.

      But as for having an impact, BDS clearly already has, considering Israel’s alarm about it and orchestrated opposition to it in the US. And the many companies that have pulled out of the West Bank. Another quote that fits quite well here: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

      Reply to Comment
    10. GAMH8EITE

      Try harder.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Susan

      Phillip, suppose your child was sick and you needed a drug produced in Israel. Would you buy it?

      I fail to see how it does anything except make you feel smug and self-righteous. Please explain how it ends the occupation one day sooner.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Duh

      A more likely scenario is a Palestinian needing cancer treatment and not being able to get it.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Bonnie Prince Charlie

      The hypocrisy of those who support BDS against Israel never ceases to amaze me.

      Surely they are aware that the technology which drives their cellphones, computers, the internet etc was developed in part in Israel and that Israel benefits economically far more from this than it does from Jordan Valley dates?

      Are they aware that it is Israeli technology which is responsible in part for their ability to communicate electronically with each other? Perhaps not.

      Would they have the honesty and integrity to lead by example and stop using these products and services if they were aware? Definitely not.

      I don’t hear them calling for these products and services to be boycotted. I don’t hear them calling for the world to boycott new advances in medicine and other fields of technology coming out of Israel. Just dates and other farm produce. Pathetic.

      The clearly stated objective of the BDS movement is the total destruction of Israel and for the area to become part of one large ‘Palestinian’ state. That’s genocide. Hands up all those who support genocide.

      Reply to Comment