Jon Haber has an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor today with the attention-grabbing headline “Campaigns to hurt Israeli economy really hurt Middle East Peace,” in which he simultaneously argues that campaigns in the West to divest from Israel have been inconsequential failures, and that they endanger the future of the peace process. He basically argues that most of the material victories of these movements have been small, fleeting or fabricated, and that the divestment movement gets much more media attention than it does political and financial support. He then almost perfunctorily tacks on a few sentences that purport to demonstrate why such campaigns are still harmful:
…keep in mind that the goal of boycott and divestment campaigners is to put Israel in the dock and to give legitimacy to their accusations against Israel by claiming well-known and respected organizations as their supporters.
Because of the potential propaganda payoff of even a temporary success, BDS campaigns are likely to continue this year, regardless of the needless pain that always accompanies dragging the Middle East conflict into a civic institution. In fact, the BDS campaigns may contribute to extending and exacerbating conflict, even during a period when the parties themselves are negotiating peace.
First off, what is this “needless pain” that “always accompanies dragging the Middle East conflict into a civic institution”? Into how many civic institutions has this conflict been dragged, and who precisely has been hurt by it? I’m not being rhetorical, I’m genuinely not sure what Haber is talking about. Second, to the extent that BDS campaigns have any value (I look at them with some ambivalence, and am particularly skeptical of those relating to academia), it is in the look to the future that they provide Israeli leaders.
Such campaigns, and the sentiments they express, remind Israel that there is a limit, in the long term, to the patience of the international community with regard to the occupation. Over the past sixty years Israel has, with considerable success, developed political, strategic and economic relationships with the West that have served its interests and assisted in it becoming a prosperous and reasonably secure society. Right or wrong, though, the mounting impatience of Western populations and even some Western leaders with the moral and strategic hazards of the Israeli-Palestinian status quo will become ever more difficult for Israel to smooth over. Divestment campaigns, even weak, skeletal forms, serve as a reminder of that.
I get the sense from Haber’s article, which seeks to dismiss comparisons between Israel and South Africa as “propaganda” – an accurate charge to be sure, but even propaganda can contain truth – that he understands precisely the power of the BDS narrative, and seeks to undermine it by both dismissing its importance and deriding it as dangerous. Unless one believes that Israel is entirely blameless for the dismal course of the multi-decade peace process, though, it seems that the specter raised by the BDS movement – of Israel isolated – might provide precisely the kind of background pressure needed to induce compromise. After all, if Israeli leaders feel peace can always be put off, why would the make the sacrifices necessary to achieve it?