September 19, 2007

New pariah on the block

Excerpted from The Economist:

The campaign for sanctions against Israel is growing. But it faces resistance and is less effective than it looks.

For once, Israel's critics and cheerleaders agree on something: the Jewish state risks greater international isolation. Pro-Israel groups such as NGO Monitor and the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs say a new assault is on the way. In the other camp, Shir Hever of the Alternative Information Centre, an Israeli-Palestinian activist group in Jerusalem, says that advocating a boycott is no longer always treated as anti-Semitism. Both sides have a motive to exaggerate such claims. But “boycotts, divestments and sanctions” (known in the activist world as “BDS”) do seem to be growing.

Pro-Israel lobbyists see this as part of what they call the “Durban strategy”, devised by activists at a United Nations anti-racism conference there in 2001, which marked a new high point for Israel-bashing. The real trigger, though, seems to have been a call two years ago by a coalition of Palestinian outfits to boycott products made in Israel or in its West Bank settlements, and to divest from (ie, sell shares in) Israeli firms, or foreign ones seen as profiting from Israel's occupation of the West Bank and (then) Gaza. Caterpillar, whose earth-movers are used for demolishing Palestinian homes and building on settlements, and Motorola, whose clients for communications equipment include the Israeli army, are popular targets.

This year two big British trade unions and the much smaller National Union of Journalists (NUJ) called on their members to boycott Israeli products. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions backed divestment. The public-sector union in the Canadian province of Ontario voted to support BDS last year; local activists are campaigning against Indigo, a retail chain that sells books and music. Its majority owners run a charity for Israeli veterans. In February an “Israeli Apartheid Week” was held on North American and British campuses for the third year running. Motions to boycott Israeli universities have passed at the conferences of two British teaching unions. A handful of American churches and the ecumenical World Council of Churches have considered divestment from companies like Caterpillar, as has the Church of England, Britain's established church.

Under closer inspection, the boycotts look flimsy. Most of the motions passed have been non-binding recommendations, or instructions to investigate the practicalities of BDS. Activists' votes at conferences may be slapped down by the membership, as with the NUJ's boycott, which was reversed after furious complaints from members. After pressure from Jewish groups, American Presbyterians, who voted in 2004 to look into divesting from up to five American firms, backed off last year without having removed a dollar. The two British teaching unions merged and voted anew to consider suspending links with Israeli institutions only to provoke a huge counter-attack by American college presidents.

But blaming Israel alone for the impasse in the occupied territories will continue to strike many outsiders as unfair.