There is an old saying that generals prepare to fight the last war. Those of us engaged in defense against the assault on Israel’s legitimacy cannot afford to fall into this trap. We must accurately assess the evolving strategies and tactics employed by anti-Israel activists who seek to portray the Jewish state as a rogue nation, the 21st-century equivalent of apartheid South Africa, often urging the use of BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) as punishment for Israel’s misdeeds.
In past years, the blockade of Gaza served as a focal point for anti-Israel activism, which included wildly exaggerated reports of human suffering and baseless accusations of illegality. The IDF’s interdiction of the flotilla from Turkey (subsequently validated as legal by a UN investigation) and the discredited Goldstone Report about alleged “war crimes” committed during Operation Cast Lead were centerpieces of campaigns aimed at demonizing Israel.
Today, the Muslim Brotherhood has assumed a leadership role in Egypt and is not anxious to disrupt the flow of U.S. assistance or to provoke a confrontation with Israel. It is pressuring Hamas to avoid rocket attacks against Israel, to moderate its positions and to seek reconciliation with Fatah, the other major Palestinian faction. Thus, the situation in Gaza does not appear to provide the same fertile ground for anti-Israel campaigns under the guise of human rights as it once did. Moreover, Israel’s military actions with respect to Gaza and Hamas always could be readily explained in terms of the legitimate right of any country to self-defense.
While Israel’s “occupation” and lack of Palestinian independence will continue to be in the center, we now can discern at least two new fronts in the campaign against Israel’s legitimacy, both of which will offer difficult challenges. One involves Israel’s Arab citizens, and the accusation that their second-class status and mistreatment place the Jewish state apart from the family of nations. As described in a March 24 New York Times article about the attempt to boycott Israel food products at the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, BDS is being used to pressure Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and to recognize the “fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.”
Another ongoing issue that provides fertile ground for anti-Israel activists whose real purpose is not to achieve a two-state solution, but, instead, to bring an end to the Jewish state of Israel (“one-staters”) is Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank. Harsh criticism of settlements by NGO activists is buttressed by the sharply critical UN Security Council Resolution, which was vetoed by the U.S. in 2011, and the recent decision by the UN Human Rights Council to establish a commission to investigate the impact of settlements on the West Bank. The UN has been notoriously one-sided in its assessment of this situation and many others related to Israel. On the other hand, we see that some from the Zionist left who are genuinely concerned about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state — notably Peter Beinart in his much discussed recent op-ed piece in The New York Times — are not merely condemning settlements, but also calling for boycotts targeted at products made over the Green Line.
What makes these new fronts particularly challenging is that they are picking at soft spots within the mainstream Jewish and general communities. The Arab citizens of Israel, in fact, have legitimate grievances. This has been acknowledged by a succession of Israeli governments, including the current one, as well as by the organized Jewish community, which has even established a special interagency task force to work on advancing civic and socioeconomic equality in the Jewish state. In addition, many within the mainstream Jewish community believe that settlement activity, while not the most serious obstacle to peace, nevertheless is misguided, especially as Israel’s stated long-term policy is to pursue a two-state solution. Polls uniformly show that the American people are sharply critical of settlements, in part due to a consistent pattern of U.S. government condemnations of settlements through both Republican and Democratic administrations. (It also should be noted that most critics of settlements, including J Street, reject targeted boycotts as counterproductive and ineffective.)
We must develop effective strategies for countering attempts to delegitimize Israel that use as their point of departure the status of the country’s Arab citizens and settlement activity. Chief among them is projecting into the public square voices of those who are critical of and seek to change Israeli policies, but who do not want the country’s flaws, as they regard them, used to justify the campaign to turn Israel into a pariah state. As the groundbreaking analysis done several years ago by the Israeli think tank Re’ut pointed out, Israel’s most thoughtful critics, too often ostracized by the government and the organized Jewish community, are best positioned to build a “political firewall” between the extreme and the mainstream.
Martin J. Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and project director of the Israel Action Network, an initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and the JCPA.