Israel’s politicians sound rattled by the campaign to isolate their country
ONCE derided as the scheming of crackpots, the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, widely known as BDS, is turning mainstream. That, at any rate, is the fear of a growing number of Israelis. Some European pension funds have withdrawn investments; some large corporations have cancelled contracts; and the American secretary of state, John Kerry, rarely misses a chance to warn Israel that efforts to “delegitimise” and boycott it will increase if its government spurns his efforts to conclude a two-state settlement of its conflict with the Palestinians. Israel, says Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister, is approaching the same “tipping point” where South Africa found itself in opposition to the rest of the world in the dying days of apartheid. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” he told a conference of security boffins recently in Tel Aviv. “The world listens to us less and less.”
BDS has begun to grab the attention of some of the world’s largest financial institutions. PGGM, a big Dutch pension fund, has liquidated its holdings in five Israeli banks (though the Netherlands’ largest has affirmed its investments). Norway’s finance ministry has announced that it is excluding Africa Israel Investments and its subsidiary, Danya Cebus, a big building firm, from a government pension fund.
The campaign is drawing support from beyond northern Europe. Romania has forbidden its citizens from working for companies in the West Bank. More churches are backing BDS. An American academic association is boycotting Israeli lecturers. The debate turned viral after Scarlett Johansson, a Hollywood actor, quit her role as ambassador for Oxfam, a charity based in Britain, in order to keep her advertising contract with SodaStream, an Israeli drinks firm with a plant on the West Bank.
Mr Lapid, who favours a two-state solution, reels out figures to show how sanctions could hit every Israeli pocket. “If negotiations with the Palestinians stall or blow up and we enter the reality of a European boycott, even a very partial one,” he warned, 10,000 Israelis would “immediately” lose their jobs. Trade with the European Union, a third of Israel’s total, would slump—he calculates—by $5.7 billion.
Anxious to hold on to their markets, Israel’s businessmen are increasingly backing the peace camp. The names on a recent advertising campaign in its favour included such luminaries as the head of Google in Israel. Hitherto they had usually preferred to stay out of politics.
Israel’s government is divided over how to react to the BDS campaign. The finance ministry has temporarily shelved a report it said it would publish on the possible consequences of BDS. But Israel’s press and ministerial addresses are increasingly full of worried references to it.
Some Israelis argue that this publicity merely feeds the BDS campaign, others that isolation has benefits. Israel’s position as a hotbed of hi-tech start-ups is due in part to decades of circumventing Arab boycotts. A French arms ban in the 1960s sparked the development of its weapons industry, helping to catapult Israel into fourth place in the world’s league of arms exporters. And if the West turns its back on Israel, there is, they say, the east. Relations with India have warmed of late, and those with China are getting closer. The economy minister, Naftali Bennett, a sceptic of the peace process, recently toured the Far East, saying he was bringing a “light to the gentiles” by way of Israeli business. But Mr Bennett is in a minority on BDS: his colleagues are a lot less sanguine.