Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is fundamentally wrong. On an ethical level it is an affront to the values of human rights and national self-determination, perpetuating an injustice that forced an innocent population into diaspora and exile. In legal terms, settlement construction in the West Bank and restrictions on Palestinian freedoms violate the Fourth Geneva Convention and contradict the universal standards central to international law.
Additionally, current conditions harm Israeli interests. Occupying hostile territory presents an incessant security threat while inhibiting diplomatic cooperation and cementing Israel’s role as an international pariah. Moreover, demographics ensure the unsustainability of the status quo. The Jewish population in Israel and the Palestinian territories now numbers around 6.1 million, a narrow majority over the near 5.8 million Arabs. Higher Arab birthrates will eventually erode this small majority, offering Israel a fateful choice: preserve Jewish minority rule over second-class Arab citizens or conceive a binational entity. In one scenario, Israel would sacrifice its democratic character, in the other, its status as a true Jewish homeland.
In recent decades, many political initiatives and grassroots movements have emerged seeking to peacefully end the occupation. One that is particularly notable is Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a campaign formed in 2005 by 171 Palestinian nongovernmental organizations advocating a global effort to economically, politically and culturally isolate Israel. Adopting this cause, student governments at several universities, including Northwestern and UCLA, passed resolutions demanding divestment from Israel-associated companies, while other academic institutions and thousands of individual scholars and artists have called for a moratorium on exchange with their Israeli counterparts. By their logic, financial hardship and increasing political pressure will compel Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.
BDS is noble in that unlike other Palestinian liberation movements, it does not advocate violence against Israel or its citizens. Nevertheless, the campaign disincentivizes Israeli willingness to work for peace, thus reducing the probability that the coming years will witness an end to the occupation and its associated hardships for the Palestinian people. Particularly, international hostility will empower hardline political elements while concurrently delegitimizing the segments of Israeli society responsible for promoting the cross-cultural dialogue imperative for any future changes to the status quo.
Rather than forcing their hand, BDS has allowed Israeli right-wing leaders to justify the continuation of repressive and counterproductive behavior. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultranationalist allies have consistently engaged in fear-mongering — whether concerning Iran, Palestinian terrorism or Israeli Arabs — as a means of galvanizing political support. The advent of BDS has functioned in a similar capacity, providing the Likud government with not only another excuse for abandoning the peace process, but also a pretext for stifling domestic opposition. Indeed, Netanyahu and his partners have cited BDS in restricting foreign funding to Israeli human rights NGOs and condemning the anti-occupation “Breaking the Silence” project. Taking advantage of this reactionary environment, far-right leaders have cemented their credibility and relevance by depicting themselves as the only safeguard against this purportedly existential threat.
BDS too fails to influence Israeli policy because those who benefit most from the occupation are affected least by the impacts of international boycott. As West Bank settlers and the ultraorthodox Haredi community receive government subsidies and produce predominantly for domestic consumers, their livelihoods are insulated from global economic trends. While other Israelis may feel the strain of divestment, the settler lobby’s stranglehold on Netanyahu’s coalition ensures that no amount of external pressure will force a reconsideration of settlement expansion or border delineation.
In contrast, the parts of Israeli society suffering most from BDS are those whose contributions are requisite to foster domestic support for a peaceful end to the conflict. The novelists, artists and filmmakers whose works have been boycotted in the name of ending the occupation are often those most critical of its prolongation. Is silencing these voices conducive to reorienting Israeli policy toward compromise? Likewise, those working in Israel’s high-tech sector, a thriving industry directly threatened by divestment, are internationalist in outlook and largely supportive of the more conciliatory posture advocated by leftist parties. Were economic conditions to worsen, many high-tech positions would relocate overseas, depleting a pro-peace voting bloc and further decreasing the likelihood of a negotiated solution.
Considering the latent fallacies pervading BDS logic, the international community must shift tactics in advocating Palestinian statehood. But to legitimately resolve the conflict, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the next U.S. administration must undertake concrete steps toward the de-escalation of tensions, measures that will undoubtedly encounter an array of pitfalls. Consequently, in the face of political expediency, it must be acknowledged that no feasible, fix-all resolution to the Israeli occupation may exist for quite some time. What is certain, however, is that economic, political and cultural isolation is stunting, rather than catalyzing the peace process. To achieve mutually advantageous progress, dialogue must be embraced, not shunned; the Israeli left must be empowered, not marginalized, and withdrawal must be seen as a bilaterally beneficial objective, not a unilaterally imposed ultimatum. Only then may a genuine path to peace truly materialize.
Matthew Gregory is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Sense of the Middle East appears every other Tuesday.