John Kerry has been valiantly working to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians aimed at a final settlement of their dispute over the land of Palestine.  I’m not a mind reader; I don’t know if Kerry truly believes he can succeed.  I can’t imagine that he does, but whether he does or not, he evidently feels compelled to try, and for that he deserves some credit. I think Kerry’s task is fairly hopeless because the far stronger side in this dispute—the Israeli side—doesn’t want a settlement and is under no particular pressure to come to terms.

Excepting the small centrist party headed by Tzipi Livni, there is no reason to believe that the predominantly right wing coalition that governs Israel has any serious interest in a real two-state solution, which is the only negotiated solution imaginable.  Benjamin Netanyahu, like Ariel Sharon before him, has grudgingly given lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, but he has made clear that his idea of such a “state” is a fragmented mini-pseudostate lacking genuine sovereignty. The Israeli government’s insistence on continuing settlement expansion is indicative.  Any final settlement would require not just an end to new construction but a substantial rollback of Israel’s colonization of the West Bank.   The Palestinians have reasonably demanded an end to construction as a precondition for talks: it would serve as a minimal demonstration of Israeli good faith.  If the Israelis are unwilling even to stop their expansion into the occupied territories, how can anyone believe that they would ever contemplate reversing that expansion?  You can’t credibly talk about giving back the pie if you’re eating the pie as you speak.

So, I agree with “disillusioned Zionist” Jerome Slater that

…In light of Israeli intransigence, there is no chance of attaining a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without strong and sustained pressures from the American government, very probably including making its military, economic, and diplomatic support of Israel conditional upon the end of the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians and the creation of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state.

But those “strong and sustained pressures from the American government” aren’t going to happen.   Kerry can jawbone Bibi forever, but he can’t credibly threaten withholding support for Israel because Bibi knows our Congress would never let him follow through; the Israel lobby in this country is just too strong.

The Palestinians’ incentives for arriving at a settlement are obvious.  They have long been under tremendous pressure; their economy is a shambles and their people are unfree.  The Israelis aren’t under any remotely comparable pressure.  If the American government has to be ruled out, where might that pressure come from? In voting to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the American Studies Association has joined the broad BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement that aims to provide an answer to that question.

I have my serious doubts about the BDS movement, which I’ll explain shortly, but first I want to deal with the common objection that BDS must perforce be anti-Semitic.   That objection is often based on the observation that in a world full of vicious, oppressive governments, people single out Israel as an offender against human rights.  Why just the Jewish state?  Why the double standard?  How is it, asks David Harris, the Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, “that no other country in the world—not Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Sudan or any other serial human rights violator—has been the object of such a boycott…?” It’s a fair question, but you don’t need to talk about anti-semitism to answer it.

There are entirely legitimate reasons for singling out Israel; its occupation of the West Bank is indeed exceptional, if not unique, in at least two ways.

First, the occupation is simply not comparable to the internal repression that is  unfortunately so widespread in the world.  The occupation constitutes a situation in which one country by force of arms has imposed its rule on another people outside its own borders.  There is a long history of respect for sovereignty in international law and custom.  A ruler can oppress his own people with relative impunity, but once he crosses his borders to conquer or oppress others, his actions come under the scrutiny of the international community.  You can argue that that’s not right; that it’s a double standard, but it’s not one that applies exclusively to Israel.   Besides, by any reasonable definition of the term, Israel’s occupation and colonization of the West Bank is a form of colonialism.  It’s a neo-colonial anachronism that I’m quite sure has no analogue anywhere else in the world.

Second, Israel is unique because it enjoys a very special—yes, unique–relationship with the world’s dominant superpower.  Not only has the United States showered Israel with economic and military aid over the decades, but it has used its overweening influence to shelter Israel from any action by the international community that would interfere with its rule on the West Bank.  The US has cast its Security Council veto literally dozens of times in defense of Israel; countless other resolutions undoubtedly never came to a vote because of the certainty of a US veto.  So its special relationship with the United States effectively immunizes Israel from the pressures that “ordinary” countries might face.   Most of the serial human rights offenders Harris cites are already the object of US or international sanctions.  No one has ever sanctioned Israel because the United States would never allow it.   BDS seeks to crack the wall of immunity that the US has erected in defense of Israel.

So, I don’t think that the use of BDS to pressure Israel is inherently objectionable.  My problem is with the actually existing BDS movement, which seems to question the very legitimacy of a Jewish state in Palestine.  As Peter Beinart points out in connection with the American Studies Association action, “The Association’s boycott resolution doesn’t denounce ‘the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.’ It denounces ‘the Israeli occupation of Palestine’ … while making no distinction whatsoever between Israeli control of the West Bank… and Israel proper….”  Beinart goes on to observe that while the BDS movement more generally places great stress on Palestinian national rights, it makes no mention of Israeli or Jewish national rights.   So, he identifies as “the fundamental problem”:

Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one. I don’t think that position is inherently anti-Semitic, but I do think it’s profoundly misguided.

I agree.  I would have no problem with a BDS movement that clearly focused on the occupation as its target.  Like Beinart, I support a more limited BDS movement aimed at Israeli institutions and products identified with the West Bank.   I might even be OK with a broader BDS movement that explicitly recognized a diversity of  views among its members, to embrace those who support a Jewish state in Palestine.  But as currently articulated, the BDS position will tend to alienate even vocal critics of Israel like Beinart and M.J. Rosenberg, not to mention me.  And that’s a shame, because if they can’t get people like us on board, then they risk consigning themselves to the status of a cult rather than a movement that might actually accomplish something good.

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