It’s (still) the occupation


The Jewish and Israeli worlds are being roused to battle by a growing campaign highlighting the evils and dangers of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel). Is it really such a danger, or are there other reasons many Jewish organizations are pushing it so vigorously?

BDS is being used to distract attention from the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements. It is part of a larger strategy of delegitimization; not of Israel, as is widely claimed, but, of those, especially Jews, who are trying to stop the current government from leading Israel towards isolation and disaster.

There is no doubt that the Middle East in general, and Israel in particular, faces real and dangerous threats. A nuclear Iran; worldwide anti-Semitism; the success of ISIS; the failure of Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Libya as states: all are genuine crises, and many are causing far more immediate death and destruction in the short term. So why am I and others pushing for settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the face of all these? No one seriously believes that such a mutually-agreed on settlement will stop ISIS, Iran, or the Arab civil wars in their tracks.

Ironically, Israel now finds itself in de facto alliance with the major Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States, primarily because of their shared fear of Iran and ISIS, not simply a temporary alliance of convenience. All of these Arab states are conservative, status quo powers. They understand that Israel has an equally large stake in the status quo, and shares many of their interests. The last thing they want is a new and unstable Palestinian state replacing Israel.

Nevertheless, except for Jordan and Egypt, Israel has no official government-to-government dealings with any Arab states, and their public relationships are frosty. Why? Solely because of the Palestinian issue. The Arab and Muslim worlds are so heavily invested in that issue that their governments cannot ‘normalize’ relations with Israel until there is a Palestinian state. This is not going to change. The ongoing conflict prevents Israeli integration into the region.

Domestically the occupation constitutes an objective threat to Israeli democracy. When a democratic state rules over a population as large as its own with no vote and little say in its governance, it cannot be called a democracy any longer. The occupation has poisoned Israeli politics internally, and led to increasing international isolation of the country. A demili­tarized and poor Palestinian state cannot offer any credible threat to Israel or, if it teams up with others who do, Israel will be perfectly capable of defending itself.

What about BDS and the ‘new anti-semitism’? Doesn’t this prove Israel is in genuine danger and that the world will always hate it?

In fact, it proves the opposite. The BDS phenomenon is cynically used by the Israeli government and others as evidence that whatever Israel does, it will never be safe. They claim BDS, not the occupation, is Israel’s and the Jewish people’s real enemy, along with Iran, ISIS, and President Obama.

In fact, the large majority of those who support BDS do so because they believe Israel has no business ruling over the West Bank and blockading Gaza. It is the leadership, those who purport to speak in the name of BDS, who do not accept Israel’s existence, certainly not as a Jewish state.

I don’t agree with BDS, but this movement is not a serious potential danger to Israel.

However, BDS is increasingly being used as an excuse to purge the Jewish community and weed out of it those who recognize that the occupation is the greatest single danger threatening Israel. The occupation is the lynchpin of support for BDS and for much of the anti-semitism that is rearing its head around the world. Yes, there is indeed growing anti-semitism, but much of it is related to Israel’s actions, not religious or ‘racial’ hatred of Jews.

Ending the occupation and establishment of an independent Palestinian state will not change those whose hatred for Israel is existential. But this small minority swims in a sea which is filled with those who primarily oppose the occupation. Neither the leaders of BDS nor the leaders of Israel want to recognize this fact. For opposite reasons, both exaggerate the adherents and successes of the movement which have, for the most part, been few and far between.

The only way to change this dangerous trajectory is to end the occupation as quickly as possible.

Paul Scham is the executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.



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