A response to Mel Ward about the Co-op's Israel boycott policy
I welcome Mel Ward’s response to my article for Progress opposing the Co-op’s Israel boycott policy. It raises some important points that need to be addressed.
I think Mel is a very important voice in the debate about Israel and the Palestinians within the Labour Party, as someone who clearly has a great affection for Israel and the Jewish people, considers herself still to be a friend of Israel, but has been a powerful advocate of the rights of the Palestinians, not least during the three months she spent living in Hebron and seeing firsthand some of the most troubling aspects of the conflict.
I share Mel’s sense of urgency about achieving a two state solution. I really hope the current talks work. 47 years is too long for the Palestinians to have not had their freedom. As a Zionist I argue that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination and a nation state of their own, so it would be logically and morally ridiculous, as well as politically stupid, to try to deny this to the Palestinians.
But Mel has slightly misunderstood the scope of the Co-op’s boycott. She defends it on the basis that it is a boycott of produce from “illegal Israeli settlements”. In fact this kind of targeted boycott of settlement produce was the initial stance the Co-op took in 2009. The point at which pro-Israel campaigners started protesting against the Co-op’s boycott was when they extended it beyond settlement produce in 2012, to no longer stock any produce from four Israeli exporters because those companies source some (their websites suggest a small minority) of their produce from settlements. This means that the Co-op does not stock fruit and veg from Agrexco, Arava Export Growers, AdaFresh and Mehadrin even if it is grown in pre-1967 Israel. In fact one of these companies, Agrexco, is the main export channel to Europe for Palestinian fresh produce, so the Co-op boycott has absurdly included produce grown by Palestinian farmers.
This expansion to a secondary boycott illustrates one of the problems with Mel’s own preferred narrow boycott of settlement produce. In reality this narrow boycott is seen as the first stage, the foot in the door, of the multi-stage global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign, the culmination of which is intended to be a full consumer, cultural and academic boycott and state sanctions against Israel.
The anti-Israel BDS campaign thus shares a tactic and a measurement of success with the smaller group of people like Mel who don’t want to boycott Israel itself but do want to boycott settlement goods.
This means that when an organisation like the Co-op adopts a settlement boycott policy it isn’t just greeted as a victory by people like Mel who specifically dislike settlements, it is trumpeted by the BDS movement as a first stage victory for BDS and a stepping stone on the path to delegitimisation of Israel and an eventual one state solution i.e. Israel ceasing to exist.
It also means that the practical manifestations of a settlement boycott campaign are very difficult to tell apart from the manifestations of a general anti-Israel boycott, and are ugly and unpleasant.
The boycott of SodaStream is a settlement produce boycott because SodaStream’s factory is in Ma’ale Adumim. Its main practical manifestation is a weekly demonstration outside SodaStream’s EcoStream shop in Brighton which doesn’t limit itself to anti-settlement messages but also features anti-Israel messaging. These demonstrations have caused a huge amount of distress to Brighton’s small Jewish Community.
The boycott of environmental services contractor Veolia is a settlement produce boycott because Veolia is, in the boycotters’ words, “complicit in war crimes” because it has a stake in building the Jerusalem tram, which both Jews and Arabs can use to travel across Jerusalem from western areas that were always Israeli to eastern areas of the city that are considered settlements. The demonstrators outside my town hall when this boycott was due to be debated did not confine themselves to criticism of settlements.
The boycott of Ahava is a settlement produce boycott because the beauty produce company uses minerals from the banks of the Dead Sea in an area that was not part of Israel before 1967. The practical manifestation of this boycott was an Israeli-owned shop being driven out of business in central London by regular demonstrations that looked and sounded like they were opposed to Israel as a whole, not just settlements, and which many Jewish people have told me they found distressingly similar to the picket lines outside Jewish shops in Germany in the 1930s.
The problem for Mel is that all these settlement boycotts look very much like Israel boycotts. They are supported, promoted, and largely led by people who do not support a two state solution like Mel does. If she went on one of these picket lines she would find herself surrounded by people from the SWP and PSC (Palestine Solidarity Campaign), a group whose logo does not show a two state solution, it shows a unitary Palestine, and some of whose local chapters have been repeatedly exposed for linking from their websites to anti-semitic and Holocaust denial material.
The use of boycotts as a tactic in regard to Israel is designed to have a very specific resonance with the main historic 20th Century boycott campaign, which was against apartheid South Africa. By using the tactic that was used against apartheid, the BDS movement seeks to create an intellectual parallel between Israel and apartheid. My BICOM colleague Professor Alan Johnson has written an extensive booklet about this smear and its sinister origins.
Mel accuses me of “the deliberate conflation of criticism of the policy and practice of the Israeli government with delegitimisation of the state of Israel.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The organisation I am Director of, We Believe in Israel, is open to any friend of Israel, however critical or not they are of current Israeli policies, as long as they support a two state solution. We have people we work with and who are on our mailing list who share Mel’s distaste for the Netanyahu government, who believe settlements are illegal, and who want Israel to retreat to precisely the pre-1967 Green Line as a border when two states are created.
But we have a very firm view about when criticism becomes delegitimisation.
Any form of boycott does constitute delegitimisation because it reinforces the false narrative that Israel is analogous with apartheid South Africa.
Boycott is an extreme tactic of last resort that has traditionally been used against international pariah regimes who epitomise evil, not as a way of influencing the policy of a democracy. As such its use implicitly delegitimises Israel.
The Jewish Community in the UK, through the Jewish Leadership Council and the elected Board of Deputies, has pleaded with the Co-op to drop its boycott because it delegitimises Israel and causes such distress to many British Jews. Mel is a friend of the Jewish Community and should listen to them.
Mel says that this “conflation” “is a tactic increasingly used to shut moderate voices out of the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. The problem is that if the “moderate voices” conflate their tactics with those used by the extreme voices who don’t want Israel to exist, it becomes difficult to distinguish between them. It is asking too much to expect supporters of Israel who see a baying mob outside an Israeli shop to say “oh that picket line is OK because it might include people we know hate Israel and slogans that are about destroying Israel, but it isn’t part of the wider BDS phenomenon (even though the BDS movement says it is) because it targets settlement goods.”
I think Mel is guilty of a conflation too. She wants to portray all settlers as being religious or political extremists set on confrontation with the Palestinians. There are a tiny minority, often in outposts that Israel itself considers illegal, who fit this stereotype. But the vast majority of settlers are just ordinary Israeli civilians whose homes happen to be the wrong side of a fairly arbitrary 1949 armistice line established wherever the frontline was at the end of the War of Independence. The 70,000 Jews who have returned to live in Gush Etzion returned to an area that was Jewish before a massacre in 1948. The Jews living in East Jerusalem are often returning to neighbourhoods, including the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, which had had Jewish inhabitants for three thousand years but were ethnically cleansed by the Jordanians.
Mel is simply wrong to claim that “There is no possible scenario where a two-state solution is achievable without dismantling the vast majority of these settlements.” This is just factually incorrect and is in fact the opposite of the truth. Every “possible scenario where a two-state solution is achievable” that has been tabled in recent years, including the Arab Peace Initiative, involves the large settlement blocks where most of the settlements are, around Jerusalem, along the Green Line, and at Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim (where the SodaStream factory is) becoming part of Israel, with landswaps compensating the Palestinians. Why would you boycott produce from places that the peace process will establish are going to legally become part of Israel?
It’s an honourable position to say Israel needs to give up all the settlements. But it’s a completely theoretical one which bears no relation to what’s actually being debated in the current peace process. Insisting on it makes it more difficult for Israel to sign a deal and create a Palestinian state because it increases the percentage of the settlers who would lose their homes and therefore would oppose a deal. Quite aside from the political implications I cannot see any humanitarian argument for not minimising the number of people who have to abandon their homes and livelihoods as part of a peace deal. The wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours already created millions of refugees on both sides. Another round of ethnic cleansing isn’t morally justifiable.
Insisting on it also makes it more difficult for Israel to address its security concerns as key settlements are sited to stop Jerusalem being cut off and besieged as it was in 1948, and to stop artillery being able to shell Tel Aviv from the heights of the West Bank, and to stop shoulder-launched missiles being able to hit passenger jets at Ben Gurion airport. These are not theoretical considerations for a country that has been repeatedly attacked by its neighbours, including in the 1967 war that actually led to the territories being captured by Israel. Not addressing these security concerns would make a deal unsellable to Israel.
Mel states that “Israel is continuing to build settlements at such a rate that there soon will not be enough land left for a Palestinian state to be viable”. This is a commonly propagated myth. The footprint of Israeli settlements is not particularly expanding. Almost every announcement about construction relates to making housing more dense in places that the consensus is will become part of Israel in a peace deal.
Mel cites Douglas Alexander and William Hague restating the UK position that settlements are illegal. But she doesn’t mention that both of them oppose boycotts. The legal position the UK holds is based on an interpretation of the Fourth Geneva Convention which boils down to whether Israel has violated a ban on the transfer of civilian populations into territory the government occupies. Israel would argue this ban was written to stop WW2 style involuntary deportations to occupied territories, not voluntary movements of population. In any case, this is a law about population movement, not the economic enterprises whose produce Mel wants boycotted. In fact Israeli economic activity in the areas defined as Area C, such as the Sodastream factory, is explicitly endorsed by the Oslo Accords agreed with the Palestinians. Even if every settlement was evacuated, why would anyone who cared about the Palestinians want to also evict the Israeli companies that invest there and employ Palestinians? Surely Israeli investment is going to be a major factor in whether a Palestinian state is economically viable?
Mel is being one-sided when she focuses on settlements as a potential block to a deal. Settlements are actually one of the easier issues to deal with. Anyone with a pen, a map and a calculator could negotiate a new border that gives most of the settlements to Israel but creates a contiguous and viable Palestinian state. To understand this it is worth reading this paper by Shaul Arieli.
Supporters of peace need to put a bit of pressure on the Palestinian Authority to abandon the failed strategy of rejectionism, recognise Israel as a Jewish State (thereby abandoning delegitimising Zionism and Israel), stop selling dangerous fantasies about a mass return to Israel of the descendents of 1948 refugees, and seriously clamp down on the terrifying levels of hate education and incitement against Jews and Israel in Palestinian society. These are real barriers to peace.
Mel needs to scrutinise the groups she praises a bit more. She cites as an example The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Sounds like a worthy group. But ICAHD is led by Jeff Halper who doesn’t support a two state solution like Mel and I do. Halper says”A Jewish state has proven politically and, in the end, morally untenable”, “The “two-state” solution envisioned by all Israeli governments since 1967…is simply unacceptable”. He calls for “an international campaign for a single state.” The elimination of Israel. He denounced the Annapolis negotiations of 2007-8 as a plot against the Palestinian people against which the only resistance was Hamas, an organization whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction.
Mel says she supports Israel. I believe her. But she need to realise that supporting the boycotting of the produce of Israeli companies by the Co-op is not a great way to show this.
In my original article I set out the constructive, positive, things the Co-op could do in the Middle East instead of entangling itself in boycotts. I hope Mel will look at these and reconsider her tactics.