Settlement Boycott versus BDS

Last week’s United Church resolution endorsing a boycott of Israeli settlement goods it feels that this could be the year that civil resistance against Israel goes mainstream. Sure, the press has lambasted the Church for its foray into middle eastern politics, but since they actually lack any arguments I’m confident that this action can be built upon and economic boycott of the Israeli settlement enterprise can become politically acceptable in North America.

This creates a problem, however, for those of us who feel strongly about anti-Zionism. When you boycott the settlements, and only the settlements, you are explicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the existence of Israel within the ’67 borders. You can dress this up in disguises if you like, by saying you support the right of return of the refugees, or saying you only recognize Israel as an Israeli not Jewish state, but this is just rhetoric. The reality is that the boycott-the-settlements movement is Zionist, it, more than anything actually being done by Israeli politiciens, defends the future interests of Israel – which can only continue to exist if a compromise that creates a feasible Palestinian state is found.

And this isn’t a new problem. Since 1988 the Palestinian Liberation Organization has officially ceded 78% of historic Palestine, and effectively sold out the interests of the refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel, for the “pragmatic” dream of becoming the leadership of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO was so keep to become a government that they accepted the very weak terms of the Oslo agreement and became a native authority in territories that Israel has no intention of giving up. But all the while, because the official Palestinian leadership has been trying for the two state solution, shouldn’t Palestinian solidarity activists support that cause as well?

These tensions expose a dangerous fault-line in Palestine solidarity – the fact that while most Palestinians might be anti-zionist, the concrete, pragmatic politics of the PLO since 1988 has not been anti-zionist but has in fact pursued Israel’s interests much more devoutly than Israeli politiciens themselves. For Israel to continue to exist it needs peace with the Palestinians, a peace which doesn’t overthrow Zionism, and that is what the PLO has stood for since 1988. In fact, I’ve read things that suggest this is what the PLO would have settled for in 1982, that Arafat thought that by fighting Israelis to a standstill in Lebanon they could be persuaded to give Palestinians sovereignty over the occupied territories.

The BDS, or Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, has managed to efface over the difference between palestinian solidarity and anti-zionism by committing to a set of demands which does not explicitly entail the destruction of Israel, but which would effectively undo Israel’s zionist character. This is a bit dishonest, which is why Finkelstein called it out and denounced its leaders as cultish last year. Finkelstein was so angry because he thinks a solidarity movement based on the 2 state solution, in line with the 1988 PNC declaration of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, an argument which has basis in international law, could be successful – and that the fact activists were working towards something more than this was preventing the movement from becoming mainstream.

The adoption of a settlement boycott resolution by the United Church, and the near adoption of a similar resolution by the presbyterian church of the United States, in a sense demonstrate that Finkelstein is right – is the real boycott movement passing BDS by the wayside – moving forward with a less agressive, more potentially mainstream politics, maybe even one that will have better and more immediate results for Palestinians?

It is certainly possible to be too radical, and for your radicality to be effectively a reactionary force because you create a symbol to mobilize against more than you succeed in mobilizing yourself. Is that what BDS is? But if you don’t stand with BDS, if you scale back your politics and endorse a boycott which will strengthen rather than weaken the state of Israel, how can you say you stand with Palestinians when most of them (i.e. the refugees) have their rights trampled and excluded by the two-state solution?

There are no easy answers, and as the anti-settlement boycotts multiply groups that endorse BDS will be forced to choose whether they will change their own politics to potentially gain power and access to a more mainstream audience at the cost of no longer truly being able to identify as anti-zionist. This is a year for difficult decisions.


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