In exchange for $1.9 billion in US high-tech weaponry that will likely be used to kill more Palestinians, Netanyahu will shut up about Obama’s deal with Iran over its nuclear energy program.
The cosmetic disagreements over Iran caused a lot of noise among pundits, but never any meaningful rift between Obama and his close Israeli ally.
But now that Obama has bought Netanyahu’s silence on Iran, the Israeli leader needs another bogeyman to replace the supposed existential threat from Tehran that proved so useful to whip up the Israeli public and distract world attention from Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.
Netanyahu has declared, in effect, that BDS – the Palestinian-led movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions – is the new Iran.
In doing so, he is hastening Israel’s transformation in the eyes of the world into the old South Africa.
Speaking on Sunday, after successfully fending off a botched Palestinian Authority effort to have Israel suspended from the football governing body FIFA, Netanyahu warned that his country is facing an “international campaign to blacken its name.”
“It is not connected to our actions; it is connected to our very existence,” Netanyahu claimed, adding that Israel was being singled out and held to unfair standards.
Israeli media go to war
Israeli media, often a willing conscript in Israel’s wars, rallied to his battle cry.
The mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot splashed the headline “We are combating the boycott” on its front page.
It prominently featured an op-ed by Ben-Dror Yemini headlined “BDS is a threat to Israel’s very existence.”
Yemini laments that the “influence” of Palestinian rights campaigners “has invaded the Hillel groups on campuses.”
He warns of the dangers of exposing impressionable Jewish minds to facts about the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Yemini says that BDS is “invading politics” – via “venomous” author Max Blumethal, whose father, he notes, was a senior advisor to former President Bill Clinton.
“This isn’t what happens in every Jewish family. Far from it,” Yemini writes, “But that’s the trend.”
Yemini attacks me and Omar Barghouti as “the leaders of the campaign” and contends that “almost everything the Nazis said about the Jews is said today by BDS supporters.”
In light of all these alleged horrors, Yemini states, my emphasis: “Yediot Ahronoth newspaper is also mobilizing for war.”
It followed up today with an op-ed by Noah Klieger demanding that Israel mount “an organized and coordinated counterattack and try to convince the world that the Palestinians’ arguments on most issues, if not on all, are nothing but a blatant lie rooted in [Nazi propagandist] Goebbels’ school.”
In another example of the newspaper’s typically biased coverage of BDS, it features quotations from five Israeli politicians but not one person actively involved in BDS campaigning to answer the lurid charges.
Rudoren, moreover, adopts as her own the racist Israeli rhetoric that the Palestinian BDS call’s inclusion of refugee rights amounts to a “demographic death warrant” for the “Jewish state.”
This ugly language – echoing frequent Israeli warnings about the supposed “demographic threat” from too many Palestinian babies – mirrors racist claims in the 1980s that giving votes to Black people would amount to “national suicide” for whites in South Africa.
There is nothing entirely new about Israel’s renewed attack on BDS. Indeed, Netanyahu used his speech to the Israel lobby group AIPAC in Washington, DC more than a year ago to sound the alarm over the growing campaign.
Nonetheless there is a new flurry of activity to try to slow its growth. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire financier of Netanyahu’s political career and kingmaker for the US Republican Party, has summoned “Jewish mega-donors” for what the The Jewish Daily Forward terms a “secret anti-BDS summit.”
Minister for BDS
Netanyahu has appointed Gilad Erdan, a far-right Likud Party stalwart, as minister for “public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy,” with responsibility for leading Israel’s fight against BDS.
From the perspective of BDS campaigners, Erdan is a dream; his open bigotry and opposition to freedom of expression and democracy almost make the case for them.
“I think there are limits to freedom of speech, limits intended to protect the state from those who act against it under cover of our generous democracy,” he said in a Facebook comment aimed at Palestinian citizens of Israel who sit in its parliament. “When the right time comes, we will take care to clean the Knesset from its destroyers, who unfortunately operate from inside it.”
There are also new attempts to smear and intimidate students and faculty at US universities who support Palestinian rights by adding them to McCarthyite blacklists.
None of this is new, although Israel and its lobby groups appear to be doubling down on tactics that have been tried for years and have, by Israel’s own admission, failed to halt its slump into pariah status.
From 1986 South Africa to 2015 Israel
Israel’s repressive reaction against BDS is not even very original in the annals of settler-colonial regimes.
In the mid 1980s, South Africa’s apartheid regime made it illegal to call for boycotts or foreign sanctions, just as Israel has recently done.
And just as Netanyahu does today, in a 1987 New Year’s speech, South Africa’s apartheid leader PW Botha railed against the “wrong attitudes” of foreign governments and whined that South Africa was being pilloried while other “southern African countries [were] harboring terrorist forces against my country.”
The racist regime in Pretoria, just like its counterpart in Jerusalem today, also insisted that its problem was not the injustices created by its brutal policies but merely false perceptions fed by biased media.
“The kind of struggle in which South Africa currently finds itself is primarily a struggle of perceptions, not of conventional arms,” the government information bureau declared in 1986. “It is not so much the facts that create a psychological climate as the manner in which they are selected and presented.”
And just as President Obama lauds Israel today as a flawed but inspiring example for the world, President Ronald Reagan did as much for South Africa in a speech at the World Affairs Council in 1986.
Reagan even pointed to the racist regime’s supposed uplifting of women, just as Israel’s apologists today try to market that country as a feminist defender of LGBTQ rights:
We must remember, as the British historian Paul Johnson reminds us, that South Africa is an African country as well as a Western country. And reviewing the history of that continent in the quarter century since independence, historian Johnson does not see South Africa as a failure: ”… only in South Africa,” he writes, “have the real incomes of Blacks risen very substantially … In mining, Black wages have tripled in real terms in the last decade … South Africa is the … only African country to produce a large Black middle class. Almost certainly, he adds, “there are now more Black women professionals in South Africa than in the whole of the rest of Africa put together.” Despite apartheid, tens of thousands of Black Africans migrate into South Africa from neighboring countries to escape poverty and take advantage of the opportunities in an economy that produces nearly a third of the income in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
If you replace the names of the people and places, Reagan could well have been reciting a standard defense of Israel: despite its “imperfections,” Arabs are still better off there than anywhere else.
Though he called for reform, Reagan urged the US Congress and Europeans “to resist this emotional clamor for punitive sanctions,” as well as boycotts and divestment from South Africa, and to join him in urging “dialogue” and “negotiations” that the US would “support” without “dictating” an outcome.
Thankfully, Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other supporters and apologists for the South African regime lost the argument.
Congress did pass sweeping sanctions, but only years after popular movements around the world had answered South Africans’ call for BDS.
Only one way out
There is no doubt some exaggeration in Israel’s alarmism about how much pressure and impact BDS has already had – wild exaggeration and outright lies were also the key to its campaign against Iran.
But in some areas, such as academia, Israel is facing a “latent” or quiet boycott that may well exceed what is openly declared, as Israeli academics themselves attest.
Still, Israel enjoys tremendous backing in centers of corporate and political power in the United States and Europe. But it knows that as with South Africa, these bastions of support for injustice are always the last to fall.
There can be no doubt, however, that 10 years after Palestinians issued the BDS call, the momentum is with them. BDS is a strategic threat to Israel’s regime of occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism.
In the battle for the hearts and minds of the world, the cause of justice and equality throughout Palestine is winning, and BDS provides a set of tactics for people everywhere to mobilize their support into effective pressure.
At this stage, Israel can no longer ignore the Palestinians but it still believes it can defeat BDS solely through repression.
Israel’s leading columnist Nahum Barnea understands that while Israel won the battle in FIFA it is set to lose many more as “a large part of Israel’s friends in the West” increasingly find its policies “morally and politically” indefensible.
Israel occupies and could coerce the Palestinian Authority into giving up its campaign against Israel at FIFA, Barnea says, “But as long as we have not occupied the rest of the world, we have a problem.”
In the next few critical years, BDS must and will help many more Israelis reach this conclusion: there is no other way out, no other path to peace and normality, except to respect Palestinian rights – all of them.