Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Lack Of A Strong BDS Response Threatens Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu commented this morning on the UK's National Union of Students decision to support a boycott of Israel. However, the comments missed the mark with regards to mitigating the harm such a decision incurs. 

BDS is a threat to Israel's international political legitimacy. But Israel's response to the threat is just as important as the movement itself. In this regard, the Prime Minister's comments this morning alongside Canada's Foreign Minister are concerning. Netanyahu wondered aloud why the Union's Executive Council voted to boycott Israel (again) but voted against an October 2014 resolution to condemn ISIS. Detailing ISIS' human rights abuses, Netanyahu claimed the move told observers "everything you want to know about the BDS movement."

The Prime Minister is correct that shying away from offending Muslims while zealously offending Israelis and their supporters is a double standard. It's also hypocritical to tell the British government to stop arms sales to Israel for its human rights record while ignoring, for example, plans to build a new military base in Bahrain. But Netanyahu's framing of BDS in these terms is problematic for three reasons.

First, ISIS and Israel aren't comparable and it plays into the hands of Israel's opponents to suggest otherwise. While some pundits in the Middle East delight in drawing comparisons between the two, Israel as a liberal democracy is not comparable in any analytically meaningful way to ISIS. Detailing ISIS' human rights abuses as a counter to BDS only legitimates these comparisons. Israeli leaders should avoid even entertaining the notion that ISIS and Israel should be judged by the same standards.

Second, the National Union of Students is not the same as the BDS movement. To suggest that being a BDS supporter means one supports ISIS because of the National Union of Student's voting history is inaccurate and invokes the polarizing rhetoric that turns people off from supporting Israel. Surely there are people who support both ISIS and BDS, but the movement itself is concerned with punishing Israel, not with ISIS. The issue with the National Union of Students is one of attitudes towards Muslim minorities in the UK, not ISIS or Israel. Israel's leadership would gain more from questioning the legitimacy of the entire movement rather than going after one student union.

Finally, the comments frame Israel's values by what they're not rather than by what they are. The slogan "Israel: At least we're not ISIS" is not persuasive. A better approach would be to highlight the extent of political debate in Israel and to point out the ways in which Israeli products improve the quality of life for millions of people. Rather than contrasting Israel to the Middle East, Israel's leadership should draw comparisons with the West. 

While the attitudes of some in the West understandably frustrate Israel, an approach based on resonating with average Western citizens will do far more to mitigate the harm of BDS than polarized and ill-conceived comparisons between Israel and an insurgent group. The BDS movement frames its cause in terms that resonate with many in the West. Rather than trying to "unmask BDS," Israel should challenge the movement's hold on this normative "turf" by using similarly resonant language to highlight the more radical elements of the movement.

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