Why Boycotting Israel will Backfire, just as Netanyahu’s Blockade of Gaza Has

By Guy Laron | (Informed Comment) | – –

Many people who support a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict believe that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has a good argument. With the recent elections in Israel renewing Binyamin Netanyahu’s mandate to pursue hardline policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the lack of will by foreign governments to apply effective pressure on Israel, an activity by global civil society seems to be in order. The BDS movement seeks through grass-root activity in North-America and Europe to bring about a consumer boycott of Israeli products, sports and cultural events as well as divestment of banks, pension funds and corporations from Israeli enterprises.

All these measures, should be pursued, according to the BDS movement website, until Israel ends the “occupation and colonization” of the West Bank. Although this seems the only sensible thing to do, the BDS regime, if implemented with regard to Israel proper, would bring the very opposite of what its supporters seek to accomplish. The reason is simple: an indiscriminate boycott on Israel would destroy whatever is left of the Israeli left and would embolden the Netanyahu coalition.

Take the Israeli blockade over Gaza, for instance. The Israeli government imposes it since 2007 to undermine the Hamas government. Eight years later, not only the Hamas is well entrenched in Gaza, the Gazan business community that has traded with Israel and preached moderation has been eviscerated. Since 2007, to compensate for lack of access to Israeli goods, tunnels were built under the Gaza-Egypt border to smuggle thousands of tons of merchandise. Up to 2014 when Egypt destroyed them, tunnel owners, some of them Hamas officials, grew rich from illicit trade and had no interest in ending the conflict with Israel. On the contrary, if the blockade ended, tunnel owners would take a hit. That’s the reason that they supported lobbing missiles at Israel. In short, the indiscriminate boycott of Gaza has created a pro-conflict lobby and weakened the moderates. That is not an isolated example. In Saddam’s Iraq, indiscriminate Economic sanctions wiped out the middle class and left the ruthless dictatorship in place.

One can presume that a BDS regime would have the same effect on Israeli society. Indeed, supporters of the BDS, unknowingly, target the very groups in Israeli society which have been an important part of the Israeli left. Israeli academics, novelists and artists seek international recognition and their careers are relay on it. They have opposed the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank from an early stage and produced a continuous stream of novels, histories and plays that sharply criticize Israeli government for not doing more to solve the conflict. Likewise, Israeli exporters, especially from the Hi-Tech sector, are dependent on access to external markets and are leery of anything that can harm that. In the last elections, Tel Aviv, Israel’s unofficial capital of business and culture, voted overwhelmingly for the Left. Had it been up to Tel Aviv voters, Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the Israeli Labor party, would have won the elections with a comfortable margin.

The groups that benefit from the occupation the most – the settlers in the West Bank, ultra-orthodox Jews, real estate developers, and the Israeli military-industrial complex (Israel’s strongest interest group) would be the least harmed from a BDS regime as they are subsidized or employed by the state and produce primarily for the domestic market. Israeli arms industry has used the West Bank as a laboratory and a window-shop for its latest gadgets and since 2013 its main export markets are in China and India with brisk sales in Africa and Latin America. Moreover, the indiscriminate nature of the BDS, making no distinction between settler products and those produced in Israel itself, may allow the Netanyahu government to rally domestic support by claiming that Israel was not the victim of its own policies but of plain anti-Semitism.

In short, the BDS would hit the internationalist elements in Israeli society while strengthening the Israeli isolationists. In a world in which BDS wins, Israeli academics, artists and writers would flee abroad and Israeli manufacturers and hi-tech start-ups relocate to other venues. The result would not be a surge of support for a peace process, but a poorer, more frightened and parochial Israeli society that inflicts a harsher regime of oppression against ‘fifth column’ Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

All that does not mean that civil society in the West must wring its hands while the brutal reality of Israeli presence in the West Bank continues. But protesters need to channel their energies elsewhere. States and international organizations, such as the U.N. and related institutions, have much better tools to act against the Israeli pro-occupation coalition and they should be spurred by public opinion to do so.

Guy Laron is lecturer at the international relations department in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and visiting fellow (2014-2015) St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is author of Origins of the Suez Crisis (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013),


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CNN: “Boycott movement against Israel grows”

22 Responses

  1. Internal elements of Israeli society have had decades to show themselves capable of transforming the facts on the ground. Likely most BDS supporters have written off this as a possibility.

  2. Hmmm, I am not an expert on Israel but I disagree with the author’s bottom line.

    He makes good points but he does not provide any good alternative. Israel is supported by supported by powerful forces in the world such as the US Congress.

    I don’t know all the tools he is referring to but so far over decades the general tools I can think have not been working

    Having said that of course people should work super hard right now to have those tools be used.

    But I don’t see any alternative.

    And I think BDS can work strongly against Israel because so much of it their economy relies on trade and the geographic al location of Israel will worry Israel of being isolated and can force them to change.

  3. This argument is false and highly suspect in claiming that BDS only hurts moderates in Israel. Israel is not comparable with Iraq in relations with the West, and BDS affects it through those relations. The author makes the unsupportable claim that other means will work when none have worked.

    Israel must be subject to far greater sanctions than BDS, including reparations for its massive injuries to US democracy and foreign relations. US military encirclement and defeat would be entirely appropriate, followed by redistribution of Palestine or relocation of Jewish extremists, and would much improve US relations with the muslim world. There are few modern examples wherein a US military response was appropriate, but this is one of the best.

  4. It seems to me that the point of BDS is not to have material impact but to broaden awareness of Israel’s behavior and undermine hasbara. If ordinary people can say “we support BDS” and get away without being called anti Semites, this would be a major step forward.

  5. Prof Cole,

    “an indiscriminate boycott on Israel would destroy whatever is left of the Israeli left and would embolden the Netanyahu coalition.”

    Is the BDS an ‘indiscriminate’ boycott ? Do they try to pinpoint and calibrate their boycott attempts ?

    In any case, there is no analogy between the Gaza blockade and BDS. BDS does not devastate the physical well-being of a majority of Israeli citizens. The author (Guy Laron) should imagine his family and friends driven into unemployment, his pregnant niece deprived of medical care, his neighbours kids killed in a ‘precision strike’, his elderly uncle not getting heart-treatment because of power outage and similar horrors.

    BDS can, however, be more effective if the Israeli settlers in America get exposed with their connections amongst US politicians and US institutions.

  6. This piece would be more convincing if the writer had spelled out an alternative in some detail–the final paragraph was hopelessly vague.

  7. All that does not mean that civil society in the West must wring its hands while the brutal reality of Israeli presence in the West Bank continues. But protesters need to channel their energies elsewhere. States and international organizations, such as the U.N. and related institutions, have much better tools to act against the Israeli pro-occupation coalition and they should be spurred by public opinion to do so.

    The two are not mutually exclusive. Besides, BDS is also a modern form of ostracism and a perfectly coherent way to express distaste for Israel’s behaviour. One shouldn’t think of it as punitive so much as one way of making it clear one wishes nothing to do with people who behave as they do and would prefer others don’t either. If it leads to a mass middle class exodus, so much the better.

  8. I’m sorry, but you are wrong. BDS is the ONLY way to get Israel to negotiate. Anyone in N. America and elsewhere over the age of ca. 55 grew up with boycotts: Nestle’s; California farm produce such as grapes; everything from S. Africa. Those boycotts worked, and so will BDS. Boycotts are the ultimate form of peaceful, democratic, civilian protest. They are also TEMPORARY. Everyone now consumes Nestle’s products, California grapes, South African wines. If Israel doesn’t want to be boycotted, it should reach a peaceful solution with the Palestinians, fast.

  9. As noted by other commenters, the author fails to provide any viable alternative option for applying real and sustainable pressure on Israel to act in good faith in settling this pointless conflict-despite BDS type protest being a time honored and successful option for non-violent action.
    That aside, his position as noted in his credentials also undermined his position as a fair arbiter. Ultimately as a reader I’m left with the question, what was the point?

  10. Mr. Laron is incorrect in comparing the BDS against Israel with the Israeli blockade against Gaza. A boycott is a non-violent form of free speech, a blockade is a violent act of war (in Gaza’s case, a war crime). Furthermore, a boycott has a long, respected history in the West, especially in America. We still remember and honor the Birmingham Bus Boycott started by Rosa Parks.

    I seriously doubt that the BDS movement against Israel is really going to cause such significant damage to Israel that, alone, it will change Israel’s behavior. What it will do is bring attention to Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians, and cause ordinary people to make a decision and take a side, and change the political atmosphere toward Israel. If Europe decides to start labeling “Occupation” products, or refusing foreign aid to Israel because of it, THAT may change Israel’s behavior.

    Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his ilk are managing to piss off a lot of Americans by trying to simultaneously treat us as fools by suggesting that if I don’t go buy some Israeli hummus I will bring about the second holocaust, and also trample on my 1st Amendment right to engage in a boycott if I damn well please.

  11. “The result would not be a surge of support for a peace process, but a poorer, more frightened and parochial Israeli society that inflicts a harsher regime of oppression against ‘fifth column’ Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.”

    But that’s the point! Not creating a poorer Israel, but convincing the more sensible Israelis that if they continue as they have done this is what is going to happen. That ending the ocupation is the only way to avoid that slope to disaster. At the moment the ockupation can go on because it doesn’t really cost Israel much, it’s simpler just to let the fanatics continue building settlements than to provoke a conflict with them. One day Israel has to choose anyway, BDS only speeds up the process.

    To be a bit cynical, what Laron suggest is that the international community can’t do anything to force Israel to back down, because they hold ” ‘fifth column’ Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians” as hostages that will be punished.

  12. Israel’s blockade of Gaza is one thing. The opprobrium of the entire planet is quite another. South Africa is the better comparison, not the blockade of Gaza.

  13. Much of the purpose of BDS, as with the early days of the SA Apartheid boycott ,is to empower civil society in the boycotting countries when their governments refuse to take any meaning ful action. Through thes actions many countries governments were dragged kicking and screaming to the boycott table. Any possible adverse effect on the priviledged oppressors is far outweighed by the fact that the oppressed see visible support for their just struggle

  14. The boycott certainly was crucial to bringing down the South African apartheid regime. When the capitalists can’t make money policy changes quickly.

  15. Professor Cole & others,

    I believed that the purpose of Informed Comment was to give us meaningful analysis of the Middle East. This, on the other hand, is not.

    For one, the author compares a boycott (voluntary, driven by consumer choice) with a blockade. Even if Israelis were to want to engage in trade and commerce with Gazans, they would be barred from doing so. There is no comparison.

    Furthermore, it is not true that Gazan smugglers are is what is driving “rocket lobbing”. The overwhelming evidence is that Hamas employs ceasefires, even as Israel breaks them. The implication of the author’s comments is that rocket lobbing is in some way “provoking” the Gaza siege, which is not true.

    As for the rest of the argument — that the boycott would alienate or incapacitate the Israeli left — it is a dubious one. For one thing, BDS is not simply about the occupation and colonization of the West Bank. Although Western activists have been highly unprincipled in applying the demands listed by Palestinian civil society, the original BDS call was about three demands: an end to the occupation, the right of Palestinian refugees to return, and an end to discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

    If Israeli “leftists” are alienated by these demands, then they are not exactly “leftists,” are they? Moreover, if, the issue is that it will literally incapacitate them by “boycotting” them, then it is worth noting that at no point has BDS called for boycotting *individuals* — only institutions, such as university administrations. This is a fairly standard demand.

    Ultimately, however, the author misunderstands the point of political pressure. Israeli leftists and “internationalists” as he calls them do not exist in a vacuum, they exist within a political system and they participate in its institutions. That is why, considering how those institutions are overwhelmingly defined by their exclusion, subjugation, and marginalization of indigenous people, they are stacked *against* the left, and the Israeli “left” — if it can even be called such a thing — is forced to take increasingly pathetic stances in order to have any relevance at all. Consider that groups like Peace Now did not even mobilize their supporters to oppose the Gaza invasion in 2008 until well into the invasion. Likewise, the marginal numbers of Israelis who protested against the Gaza slaughter that took place last summer were exactly that — marginal.

    The notion here is that justice for Palestine is predicated on the whims of a left that is so pathetic and weak that the rest of the world must avoid boycotting the institutions that are responsible for oppression in order to validate that “left”. I don’t see how that is an argument against the boycott, if anything it is an argument against the Israeli left.

  16. We must use the boycott to build up the public acceptance for a need for sanctions, as was done with South Africa. The boycott did not bring down apartheid, but it taught a generation of Westerners what their colonial cousins were still doing to people of color. South Africa was not starved, but its businessmen were deprived of their own greedy global ambitions, so they were more willing to sue for peace as the ANC’s power grew.

    And the first sanctions we must demand are an end to Israeli military exports, which are the heart of the whole machinery of permanent war on Palestinians.

  17. I’m suprised to read such a fallacy in a web as well informed and documented as this one.

    It’s absurd to compare the blockade of Gaza with BDS, as other commenters have pinpointed already. They are the opposite. One is a military activity of a colonial country, the other a civil campaign aimed at developing conciousness and outing and harming those that cooperate with the abuser.

    I have a huge respect for the Israeli left, but they are part of the problem, not the solution. Israel is a colonial problem, a group of Europeans that decided to build themselves a country somewhere and inflicted its usual ethnic cleansing, occupation, etc. on innocent Palestinians. The Israeli left in general still reads the matter wrongly, defend 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel and do not recognise its true nature.

    Israel IS colonial South Africa. It applies apartheid and segregates. The West Bank is its Namibia. It has ignored or violated every UN resolution, the Geneva Convention and every international law that applies to this. Boycott should be imposed and enforced by the UN, not by civilian NGOs, but until that day arrives, let’s all impose it on our own. It’s good for the Palestinians, for the Israeiis (left or right) and for the world.

  18. If I can summarize this writer’s “logic” I’d say it this way: the West sees boycotts and sanctions as a powerful tool to use against “opponent” states (Iran, Russia, countless others) but it won’t work against Israel.

    Yet the reasons that he gives for WHY it won’t work against Israel would be equally valid if applied to those sanctions on Iran, or Russia, or whatever.

    How odd. You’d almost think his arguments were naught but excuses plucked out of thin air to justify why “the West” should (uniquely) not pick on his country, rather than an objective appraisal of the effectiveness of sanctions.

  19. This argument is ludicrous. If the Israeli left opposes BDS, it is even weaker and less relevant than I thought. BDS is making huge gains all over the world and is one significant way those of us in the West can work for Palestinans. I am surprised to see this on Juan Cole’s website. How about a response from Omar Barghouti?

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