"Classical anti-semites in modern garb," said Israeli prime minister Netanyahu on 17 February about the Boycot, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. "It's an absolute disgrace that there are people in Europe calling for a boycott of Jews," he added.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni was less harsh in her reaction to BDS, recognizing that the conflict with the Palestinians is the glass ceiling of Israel's economy. "The boycott is moving and advancing uniformly and exponentially," Livni said in December at the Calcalist's 2014 Forecasts conference.
In January, American Secretary of State John Kerry, currently overseeing a new round of peace talks, warned Israel that the campaign to boycott the country would only get stronger if the latest round of peace talks fail, leading to international isolation of Israel. This statement has put the BDS movement in the international spotlight, while also drawing major criticism from several Israeli ministers. Reactions to BDS are getting stronger and are appearing in media outlets more often, which signifies BDS is capturing its place in the mainstream.
In contrast to some of his colleagues, Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid acknowledged that if talks fail, "there will be a price." He seems to be convinced this price will come in the form an ever broadening financial and economic boycott. Based on an evaluation by his chief economist, Lapid warned that even a small boycott would "hit every Israeli citizen directly in his pocket."
Talk of the town
It thus seems that BDS has become the talk of the town in recent months. The Palestine Monitor already listed the major international decisions made in line with BDS's objectives during 2013 and it looks like this trend is continuing in the first weeks of 2014.
According to Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti, this is due to "years of persistent awareness raising, solidarity actions and BDS pressure by our partners and friends." Next to that, Barghouti also highlights the "far-right shift in the Israeli establishment" as a reason for the growing support for BDS.
The BDS movement, supported by hundreds of Palestinian civil society organisations, essentially tries to reach human rights goals, through economic means. By convincing foreign organizations to impose an economic boycott and sanctions similar to the ones South Africa faced during apartheid, the movement aims to build up economic pressure on Israel in attempt to force it to stop its occupation and colonization and to make Israel recognize the equal rights of Arab Israelis and the right to return.
Omar Barghouti vehemently counters the accusations of anti-Semitism. "Our boycott of Israel has absolutely nothing to do with identity; it has everything to do with Israel’s multi-faceted regime of oppression against us." He adds that arguing that boycotting Israel is intrinsically anti-Semitic "presumes that Israel and 'the Jews’ are one and the same. This is as absurd and bigoted as claiming that a boycott of a self-defined Islamic state like Saudi Arabia, say, because of its horrific human rights record, would of necessity be Islamophobic."
Shattering a once formidable taboo
In America BDS efforts consist mostly of academic boycotts, like the American Studies Association's December 2013 decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions; a decision approved by a majority of its members in February 2014. Barghouti is convinced that "the impact of this institutional boycott in mainstream academic bodies, like the American Studies Association, goes well beyond academia, turning BDS into a mainstream subject of debate in the media." He believes that the growing American academic boycott is not only an effect of the BDS campaign, but also "a cause of further shattering the once formidable taboo of criticizing Israel and holding it accountable to international law."
Even Hollywood was paying attention in January, when Scarlet Johansson decided to quit her position as an ambassador for Oxfam International, instead choosing to continue her promotions for SodaStream, an Israeli firm operating a branch in a settlement. The Palestine Monitor reported that this decision was made over "differing viewpoints on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and the legality of settlements."
European companies in the forefront
In recent weeks, some of the biggest international financial institutions have decided to reconsider their economic ties with Israel. On 8 January it became clear that PGGM, one of the largest Dutch pension funds, managing assets of approximately 150 billion Euros, had decided to stop all investments in five Israeli banks involved in financing the construction of settlements.
Also in January, Danske Bank, Denmarks largest bank, added Israeli Bank Hapoalim to its list of excluded companies, because of the bank’s involvement "in activities in conflict with international humanitarian law."
BDS is also gaining traction outside the financial sector. On Monday 17 February two European port operators withdrew their bid to construct ports in Ashdod and Haifa, while Belgian construction firm Jan De Nul got the permission to make a bid through a Luxembourgian company. Jan De Nul’s indirect bid, reveals the growing pressure on European companies that have evident business ties with Israel. Fear of possible negative consequence for future orders from Middle Eastern countries are on the rise. In previous months, three other European companies had already pulled out of the same bid.
When asked why a growing number of European companies are reconsidering trade ties with Israel, Barghouti argued that "companies only care about profit. As a result, companies are vulnerable to grassroots movements that spread to the mainstream and may affect revenues."
"We work with partners around the world in approaching companies that are complicit in maintaining Israel’s occupation and apartheid, trying to convince them to pull out of their illegal projects that undermine Palestinian human rights. Companies that adopt certain ethical or social responsibility guidelines are the ones we prioritize in terms of trying the dialogue path first. If that fails to produce results, we shift to boycotting and divesting mode, launching public pressure campaigns against them," explained Barghouti during his interview with the Palestine Monitor.
The European boycott overall is of a financial-economic nature. If this trend persists, it will have serious economic implications for Israel, as the EU is Israel most important trading partner. According to a report by Deutsche Welle, some Israeli business owners are already "feeling the pinch."
Apart from European business headquarters, BDS has begun to trickle down to the European public sector as well.
On 30 January the Norwegian Finance Minister announced that two Israeli firms would be excluded for the second time from a government oil fund worth $810 billion. The minister stated that this decision was made because the two firms have contributed to "serious violations of individual rights in war or conflict, through the construction of settlements in east Jerusalem.”
Previously, in July 2013, the European Union decided to exclude all Israeli institutions associated with the occupied territories from access to its new 80-billion-Euro research and development fund, while Romania decided in December 2013 to stop sending construction workers to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
During a recent and turbulent visit to Israel, president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz said that the EU is not planning to boycott Israel. "To boycott means to completely block cooperation and trade between countries. We are not speaking about such a boycott," Schulz claimed. He further explained that "a debate is going on about guidelines" to inform consumers about the origin of products, for example the West Bank settlements.
If this goes through, European consumers will be able to make their own choice about buying products stemming from illegal settlements.
Moment of truth
"Large majorities in world public opinion now know that Israel is guilty of war crimes and apartheid, but Israel has maintained strong impunity due to endless military, economic, academic and cultural support from the US and Europe. But for how long can western governments hold the fort against relentless and increasingly sophisticated pressure from below, from the grassroots and civil society? Like apartheid South Africa, Israel’s apartheid and colonial regime is nearing its moment of truth, when it will be held to account for all its crimes against the Palestinian people," concluded Barghouti.