Analysis from Israel

One of the BDS movement’s greatest assets is the fact that its every success gets massive media coverage while its failures (ScarJo excepted) are largely ignored. That’s why anyone following the news in recent weeks would probably conclude that boycott, divestment, and sanctions were rapidly gaining ground. Yet in reality, BDS has suffered several major failures lately–and some of these failures bode ill for its future.

Just last week, for instance, Britain’s Supreme Court issued a major ruling against BDS when it upheld a trespassing conviction against four activists who chained themselves in an Ahava shop in London to protest the Israeli cosmetics firm’s West Bank plant. Far from being a narrow decision about trespassing, the ruling tackled the activists’ allegations against Ahava head-on.

First, the court rejected the claim that Ahava was “aiding and abetting the transfer of Israeli citizens to the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories],” and thereby violating the Geneva Convention. The company was doing no such thing, it said, but even if it were, “this could not amount to an offense by Ahava’s retailing arm.” That precedent will clearly be valuable for other Israeli companies fighting BDS.

Second, the court rejected the claim that Ahava had mislabeled its goods by labeling them “made in Israel” when they were made in the West Bank–another precedent of obvious value. Moreover, its reasoning demonstrated a remarkably clear understanding of what BDS is about: The label isn’t misleading, it said, because “a consumer willing to buy Israeli products would be very unlikely not to buy Israeli products because they were produced in the OPT.” In short, the court understood that most boycotters aren’t just “anti-occupation”; they have a problem with Israel, period. That understanding is crucial to unmasking BDS for what it is.

Also last week, Holland’s largest pension fund–and the world’s third largest–took the unusual step of issuing a press statement announcing that it had no intention of divesting from Israeli banks, having “concluded that these banks themselves do not act in breach of international laws and regulations, and that there are no judicial rulings that should lead to their exclusion.” ABP’s statement was a direct challenge to Holland’s second largest pension fund, PGGM, which last month announced plans to divest from Israeli banks because of their involvement in financing the settlements. PGGM had claimed such activity was problematic from the standpoint of international law. Now its larger crosstown rival has just publicly termed that nonsense. Such a rebuttal from a major European financial institution is far more convincing than anything Israel could say.

Two weeks earlier, BDS suffered another loss in a French court. The French distributor for the Israeli firm SodaStream, which also has a West Bank plant, had sued a local pro-boycott group for claiming that SodaStream products were being sold fraudulently because they were labeled “made in Israel.” The court found the claim that the distributor was deceiving or defrauding customers to be baseless. It therefore fined the group and ordered it to halt its campaign. As with the British ruling, this precedent will be very useful to other Israeli companies.

Moreover, many recent BDS “victories” are actually optical illusions. Take, for instance, the announcement by Denmark’s largest bank that it’s divesting from Bank Hapoalim. But as Hapoalim pointed out, “Denmark’s Danske Bank has no investments, of any kind, with Bank Hapoalim.” Similarly, the Norwegian Finance Ministry recently ordered its sovereign wealth fund to divest from two other Israeli companies–but again, the fund had no investments in those companies.

Such “faux boycotts” are obviously still damaging, because they create the illusion that BDS is gathering steam. Nevertheless, they’re a far cry from real boycotts that do real economic damage.

In short, despite John Kerry’s warnings that if peace talks fail, anti-Israel boycotts will metastasize, BDS remains a fringe movement that can still be thwarted. It will grow to threatening proportions only if Israel and its allies make no effort to challenge it.

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Israel’s do-over election performed a vital service for democracy

Like many Israelis, I was horrified when April’s election led to another in September; it seemed a colossal waste of time and money. But the do-ever election proved critical to maintaining Israel’s democratic legitimacy among half the public—the half that would otherwise have thought that April’s election was stolen from them.

In April, rightist parties that explicitly promised to support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister won 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. In other words, a clear majority of voters seemingly cast their ballots for a rightist, Netanyahu-led government. But after the election, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman refused to join such a government.

Thus even if an alternative government could have been formed—whether a unity government or one led by Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz—it would have undermined rightists’ faith in the democratic process. Any such government would have looked like a product not of the majority’s will, but of the whims of a single individual who “stole” right-wing votes and gave them to the left.

The do-over election showed this wasn’t the case. Lieberman’s party not only maintained its strength, but increased it, thereby proving him right that his voters cared more about curbing ultra-Orthodox power than about keeping Netanyahu in office. Moreover, the pro-Netanyahu bloc shrank even further—from 60 seats (excluding Lieberman) in April to 55 in September—due entirely to Netanyahu’s own appalling behavior in the intervening months, which prompted a nontrivial number of center-right voters to either switch sides or stay home and a massive increase in Arab turnout.

That doesn’t mean Gantz won; the bloc he heads can’t form a government on its own. But neither can Netanyahu’s bloc. Any possible solution—a unity government, a Netanyahu government with leftist partners or a Gantz government with rightist partners—will require compromise between the blocs. And nobody will be able to claim the election was stolen when that happens.

This matters greatly because the democratic process has been subverted far too often over the past 25 years, usually in the left’s favor, with enthusiastic applause from the left’s self-proclaimed democrats.

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