Israel inches closer to ‘tipping point’ of South Africa-style boycott campaign

Ha’aretz: This has happened in recent days: The Dutch water company Vitens severed its ties with Israeli counterpart Mekorot; Canada’s largest Protestant church decided to boycott three Israeli companies; the Romanian government refused to send any more construction workers; and American Studies Association academics are voting on a measure to sever links with Israeli universities.

Coming so shortly after the Israeli government effectively succumbed to a boycott of settlements in order to be eligible for the EU’s Horizon 2020 scientific cooperation agreement, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is picking up speed. And the writing on the wall, if anyone missed it, only got clearer and sharper in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela.

There were valid arguments to be made both for and against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s participation in Tuesday’s memorial ceremony for Mandela, but there is no denying that the prime minister’s inept on-again, off-again, too-expensive, leave-me-alone public handling of this sensitive issue attracted unwanted publicity and compounded an already precarious situation.

The embarrassing flap singled out Israel as “odd man out,” fueled media scrutiny of Israel’s past collaboration with the apartheid regime and provided valuable ammunition to those who would equate the two. More ominously, from an Israeli point of view, the analogy between today’s Israel and yesterday’s South Africa could also stoke a belief that the former can be brought to its knees in much the same way as the latter was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

When the United Nations passed its first non-binding resolution calling for a boycott of South Africa in 1962, it was staunchly opposed by a bloc of Western countries, led by Britain and the United States. But the grassroots campaign that had started with academic boycotts in the late 1950s gradually moved on to sports and entertainment and went on from there to institutional boycotts and divestment. Along the way, the anti-apartheid movement swept up larger and larger swaths of Western public opinion, eventually forcing even the most reluctant of governments, including Israel and the U.S., to join the international sanctions regime.

In a 1998 article entitled “International Norms, Dynamics and Political Change,” political scientists Martha Finnemore, now of George Washington University, and Kathryn Sikking of the University of Minnesota laid out the foundations of the “life cycle” by which certain norms develop to shape the behavior of states and then of the international community as a whole. The first step, they claim, is “norm emergence,” when a new norm is championed by NGO’s and “norm entrepreneurs.” The second stage is a “norms cascade,” when states fall into line to embrace the new norm. And a prerequisite for evolution from the first to the second stages is a “tipping point” that occurs when a critical mass of events and opinions converge to create the norms cascade.

In the case of South Africa, the first “tipping point” probably came in the Soweto riots of 1976, which sparked the protest and disinvestment campaigns that ultimately swept American universities, pension funds and multinational corporations. The second “tipping point” came after the black South African rebellion against the racist 1983 constitution and the imposition of a permanent State of Emergency in 1984-1985, which brought the rest of the world into line.

“Tipping points,” of course, are hard to predict, and efforts to do so have been the focal point of widespread, multidisciplinary research in recent years. “You know the edge is out there, but it’s dark and foggy. We’re really great at knowing where thresholds are after we fall off the cliff, but that’s not very helpful,” as lake ecologist and “tipping point” researcher Stephen Carpenter told USA today in 2009.

Israel could very well be approaching such a threshold. Among the many developments that could be creating the required critical mass one can cite the passage of time since the Twin Towers attacks in September 2001, which placed Israel in the same camp as the U.S. and the West in the War on Terror; Israel’s isolation in the campaign against Iran’s nuclear programs; the disappearance of repelling archenemies such as Osama bin Laden, Muammar Gadhafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, to a lesser degree, Yasser Arafat; the relative security and lack of terror inside Israel coupled with its own persistent settlement drive; and the negative publicity generated by revelations of racism in Israeli society, the image of its rulers as increasingly rigid and right wing and the government’s own confrontations with illegal African immigrants and Israeli Bedouin, widely perceived as being tinged with bias and prejudice.

In recent days, American statesmen seem to be more alarmed about the looming danger of delegitimization than Israelis are. In remarks to both the Saban Forum and the American Joint Distribution Committee this week, Secretary of State John Kerry described delegitimization as “an existential danger.” Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to the same JDC forum, went one step further: “The wholesale effort to delegitimize Israel is the most concentrated that I have seen in the 40 years I have served. It is the most serious threat in my view to Israel’s long-term security and viability.”

One must always take into account the possibility of unforeseen developments that will turn things completely around. Barring that, the only thing that may be keeping Israel from crossing the threshold and “going over the cliff” in the international arena is Kerry’s much-maligned peace process, which is holding public opinion and foreign governments at bay and preventing a “tipping point” that would dramatically escalate the anti-Israeli boycott campaign.

Which only strengthens Jeffrey Goldberg’s argument in a Bloomberg article on Wednesday that Kerry is “Israel’s best friend.” It also highlights, once again, how narrow-minded, shortsighted and dangerously delusional Kerry’s critics, peace process opponents and settlement champions really are (though you can rest assured that if and when the peace process collapses and Israel is plunged into South African isolation, they will be pointing their fingers in every direction but themselves.)

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