Anti-boycott movement is a smokescreen for Netanyahu’s far-right agenda

BDS protesters on the West Bank in May 2015. EPA/Abed Al Haslhamoun

In a recent interview with Israeli television the US president, Barack Obama, warned that the stance adopted by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, towards the Palestinians erodes Israel’s credibility. Preventing the formation of a Palestinian state was Netanyahu’s campaign promise and – while he has since backed off – Obama argued that the list of caveats that Netanyahu provided made the chances of any sort of agreement with the Palestinians unlikely.

The fourth Netanyahu government is his most right-wing. Avigdor Lieberman’s withdrawal from coalition negotiations at the very last minute inflated the seat-value of the thin majority government and the Likud’s partners took advantage of their immense bargaining power to acquire sectarian benefits.

The eight-member Jewish Home Party gained control over the ministries of education and justice – both prestigious portfolios with far-reaching effects on the shape of Israeli society, namely curriculum changes and the restraining of the Supreme Court.

But their gains for the settlement movement are particularly interesting and have the effect of further institutionalising the settlement project. First, the minister of agriculture, settler leader Uri Ariel, gained control over the settlement division in the world Zionist organisation, an amorphous non-governmental body that supports settlement activity in the West Bank.

barack Obama interviewed on Israeli television, June 2015.

Second, the Jewish Home was allocated a new post of a deputy security minister with responsibility for the civil administration in the West Bank. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett has been pushing Netanyahu to annex Area C in the West Bank (which is already subject to full Israeli civil and security control) and – while there has as yet been no annexation – the creation of this new post gives direct control over that area directly to a Jewish Home representative.

Third, according to the coalition agreements, a special task force is drafting a plan to retroactively legitimise “structures and neighbourhoods in the Jewish Settlements in Judea and Sumaria”. Plenty there to raise the ire of the world community.

As Israeli NGO Peace Now demonstrates, the expansion of settlements is ingrained in the coalition agreements that allowed Netanyahu to form the government. As defence minister Moshe Ya'alon stated, expansion has in effect been institutionalised as policy, setting Israel on a collision course with the international community.

But what has emerged from both the bureaucratic chaos and the dire diplomatic prospects is a rather clear stance that is extended from the domestic sphere all the way to the state’s foreign policy – anti-boycott.

The threat of boycott

Following the FIFA incident, in which the Palestinians withdrew a motion to expel Israel from the organisation, but still subjected it to support a harsh resolution with operational consequences, the threat of boycott has taken tangible form.

It has since become the biggest item on Israel’s foreign policy agenda. Here’s how Netanyahu articulated the danger:

We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the state of Israel, an international campaign to blacken its name. It is not connected to our actions; it is connected to our very existence. It does not matter what we do; it matters what we symbolise and what we are.

This is nothing new. Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians have in the past lambasted the hypocrisy of world opinion and alluded to the anti-Semitic underpinning of boycott campaigns, but the current level of anxiety in Israel – or rather the level of fanning of anxiety by Israel’s politicians and media – is unprecedented.

One big happy family? The new-look 34th Israel government assembles. EPA/Jim Hollander

After being criticised for its anti-Netanyahu stance during the election campaign, Yedioth, Israel’s second largest daily newspaper, has launched a campaign against boycotts, declaring that it is “mobilising for war, in the form of a series of exposés, articles and reports in the coming weeks and months”.

A series of OpEds introduced a repertoire of possible responses to the boycott movement, which, the paper said, was “creating a virtual world” and “following Goebbels”. There were separate reports on the dangers of academic and economic boycotts – and even a debate on whether the citizenship of Israeli citizens who support boycott should be revoked. Other media outlets have followed suit.

In fact, the thrust of the anti-boycott campaign has even reached opposition parties – the head of centrist party, Yesh Atid, the journalist Yair Lapid, explained Monday’s vote of no confidence, set to topple Netanyahu’s government, in terms of the governments’ inability to face up to the threat of boycott, writing:

There is a campaign against the very existence of Israel. Anti-semitic groups, mostly on the left, are leading a campaign that is not against Israeli products. That is not against the settlements. It is against the idea that Jews will have their own state.

At a recent press conference in Canada, Netanyahu lambasted Britain’s National Union of Students for its support of the BDS movement:

Israel has an exemplary democracy. We have academic freedom, press freedom, human rights. ISIS tramples human rights to the dust. It burns people alive in cages and the national student groups in Britain refuse to boycott ISIS and have boycotted Israel. It tells you everything you want to know about the BDS movement.

Meanwhile, in an emergency Knesset debate on the issue the justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, attributed the success of the boycott to “classical antisemitism, radical Islam and naivity”, while Ofir Akounis, minister without portfolio, added:

Perhaps when radical Islam will take over Britain and Europe they will understand the meaning of occupation.

Moral panic

The BDS campaign, Palestinian appeals to international organisations and denouncements from foreign diplomats no doubt offer challenges to Israel’s diplomatic efforts. But lumping such disparate acts together and severing them completely from Israeli actions is an attempt to frame any sort of outside pressure as a priori illegitimate.

If Israeli foreign policy is articulated as merely a response to this pressure, it would leave very little room for diplomacy, let alone open debate – which is already restricted in Israel, where public calls for boycott, even if limited to the West Bank, are already a potentially punishable offence.

The campaign is rather one of moral panic. Boycotters, boycotting and anything that is argued to be within their vicinity are framed as a dangerous existential threat. It is a pre-emptive calibration of public opinion that filters both criticisms from the outside as well as dissenting voices from within.

This well-rehearsed chant being played in the media war-drums does as much to create an atmosphere of crisis as the wailing sirens of the annual emergency drill heard all across Israel. The boycott scare will render any and all criticisms of government policy as part of this existential crisis – which handily enables Netanyahu’s government to continue with its projects. For example, it has been reported that a recent purchase of a large church compound in the West Bank through a straw company for the purpose of establishing a new settlement near Hebron will be scrutinised by the civil administration – the responsibility over which is, of course, in the hands of the Jewish Home.

With the government committed to the settlement project, the “look-over-there-ness” of the boycott panic may come in handy.