Ten years ago, a group of some 170 Palestinian activists and other organizations launched a call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
This BDS campaign, modelled after a similar movement targeting South Africa during its apartheid era, was ignored by successive Israeli governments and laughed at by many supporters of the influential Jewish state. After all, they reasoned, Israel had withstood the 1970s Arab boycott of companies that did business with Israel.
Today, however, the BDS effort is starting to bite. Entertainers, including Elvis Costello and Stevie Wonder, have refused to perform in Israel. Scientist Stephen Hawking cancelled his participation in a major conference in the country. SodaStream, the Israeli carbonated drink maker with a manufacturing plant in the Palestinian West Bank, bowed to international pressure and moved its facilities into Israel. French mobile phone giant Orange is ending its partnership with an Israeli carrier.
The European Union is adopting a system of labeling products made in Israeli West Bank settlements, and some officials and politicians are advocating a wider ban on Israeli exports.
Israel depends not only economically on exports to Europe but also on its participation in various European organizations for some of its international swagger. Its best soccer and basketball teams play in European leagues, and its best entertainers compete in the annual Eurovision singing competition. With the threat of economic boycotts growing, can bans on Israeli performers be far behind?
A recent report by Israel's Foreign Ministry estimates that an EU boycott of all Israeli products and a halt to foreign investments could cost the country more than $10-billion a year, and the loss of 36,500 jobs.
After first dismissing the BDS campaign as inconsequential, the Netanyahu government and its international supporters now are waging an almost hysterical campaign against the movement.
"We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the state of Israel, an international campaign to blacken its name," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently. "It is not connected to our actions. It is connected to our very existence." He likened the BDS campaign to Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses and artists.
Let's separate fact from propaganda.
Does the BDS campaign seek to eliminate the state of Israel?
The BDS platform remains the same today as when it was established in 2005:
To end Israel's occupation of all Arab land captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war; to recognize the right of Arab citizens of Israel to full equality; and to promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to family properties lost in the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war.
Those who see Israel's destruction in this agenda point to the third goal, the rights of refugees. If Palestinians who fled the fighting are given unfettered rights to return with their families and descendants, Israel will cease to exist as a Jewish state – ergo, it will be destroyed, they say.
But even the state of Israel has, in the course of negotiations, acknowledged that a certain Palestinian right to return need not threaten the Jewish state. It all comes down to how many would exercise that right.
In the Clinton Parameters of 2000, the Taba negotiations in 2001 and the Geneva Accords of 2003, Israeli and Palestinian representatives foresaw the recognition of a "right" to return, but a cap on how many would actually be allowed to exercise that right.
Verbally, Israeli negotiators at Taba suggested 25,000 Palestinians be allowed to move to Israel over a three-year period, or 40,000 over five years. Palestinians argued for the number of refugees to be in "six figures."
The final number was still being considered when talks broke off, but the figure was neither the "zero" Palestinians feared, nor the "millions" Israel dreaded.
Those not willing to wait or not allowed to return would be compensated in other ways. They would choose between residency in the new state of Palestine, in a host country in which they have taken refuge, or in a third country such as Canada or Australia. And there would be financial compensation. All this would be to avoid an end to the Jewish nature of Israel.
Is the BDS campaign anti-Semitic because it focuses only on Israel?
"How can it be anti-Semitic to hold a state – any state, including Israel – accountable for its human-rights violations, for enforcing inequality and for its systems of oppression?" asked Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace, at an event this week marking the 10th anniversary of the BDS campaign.
Peter Beinart, even though he's an opponent of BDS, agrees. The movement is not anti-Semitic, the pundit says, nor is it necessary to also boycott every country with worse human-rights records. "After all," Mr. Beinart wrote, "some Jews boycotted the Soviet Union when it was oppressing its Jewish population in the 1970s without boycotting Idi Amin or the Khmer Rouge."
Mr. Beinart's worry is that the equality and refugee goals of the BDS movement would dilute the Jewish nature of Israel. He does, however, support a boycott of Israeli West Bank settlements (something the arch opponents of BDS claim is just as bad as supporting a boycott of Israel).
Is the BDS campaign harmful even though it claims to be non-violent?
It certainly can be said that Israelis are beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable as the butt of world criticism. But this is the whole point of sanctions.
Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and activist, noted in a speech she gave in Ramallah in 2009 that there are two reasons why there is so little interest in peace in Israel. "One is the fact that it is possible to live a relatively normal, fun life in Israel. And the other is that Israeli companies are not feeling the pinch from war."
You have to do something to make Israelis insist on making peace, she argues, and "that is what this non-violent movement is trying to do."
"So many people have condemned Palestinians for using violence to support their cause," she says. "It drives me crazy that those very same people are also against boycott, divestment and sanctions, which is a non-violent means of achieving peace and justice."
Does the BDS campaign seek to kill the two-state solution?Some in the BDS movement would undoubtedly prefer a single state, just as some of the Jewish pioneers, such as the Hashomer Hatzair movement, did during the period of the British mandate, but that is not the BDS goal.
Omar Barghouti, a founder of the movement, noted in his book on the subject that "while individual BDS activists and advocates may support diverse political solutions, the BDS movement as such does not adopt any specific formula and steers away from the one-state-versus-two-states debate, focusing instead on universal rights and international law, which constitute the solid foundation of the Palestinian consensus around the campaign."
He added that "most networks, unions, and political parties in the [BDS movement] still advocate a two-state solution…"
Indeed, a great many people who fear that the window is closing on a two-state-solution are turning to the BDS movement in the hope it will pressure Israel to cease settlement construction and return to negotiations with the Palestinians. These people have good reason to fear – both the closing of the window and the opening of conflict.