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Why extremists lose in South Africa but win in Israel

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, also known as the call for boycotting Israel, has recently gained unprecedented momentum. Officials who are concerned with Israel's future and the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot ignore the significance of this boycott.

It was this movement that recently prompted US Secretary of State John Kerry to warn Israeli officials of the inherent consequences that would ensue if Israel continues its settlement expansion project and refuses to progress with negotiations.

The phenomenon of the boycott movement prompted Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid to warn other members of government of the dangers associated with a boycott campaign as a boycott today "goes from standing on the brink of Western societies to penetrating their very core".

If Lapid's interpretation is true and the boycott movement is able to penetrate the core of Israeli public life then it will be very difficult for Israeli society to find a way out of the potential economic crisis, thus rendering Israel a globally isolated entity much in the same way that South Africa was isolated during apartheid.

This loss will not have limited boundaries and Israeli officials will not be able to count their losses in terms of American dollars rather, they will have to calculate their losses in Israeli currency.

Many Israeli officials tend to consider these warnings as mere exaggerations because the boycott campaign is not new. In fact, the call to boycott Israeli goods is as old as Israel itself and in many cases it preceded the declaration of the Israeli state.

Israel often fights against the campaign's organisers to the point where it has developed not only rich experience, but also specific tactics to combat boycott initiatives.

Jewish organisations once fought against a call very similar to the boycott movement in 1933. It was in that year that the Nazis came to power in Germany and began implementing their racist policies against the Jewish people. In response to this, some Jewish organisations of German and international origin along with democratic, liberal and progressive parties called on the international community to boycott the Nazi government in an effort to remove them from power.

It was expected that the majority of Jewish organisations would join the movement and boycott Nazi goods but many did not do so. Many leaders of Jewish organisations instead chose to cooperate with Hitler because they believed that many of the principles and values of Nazism were synonymous with Zionist principles, as was highlighted in a memorandum given to Hitler explaining the causes that contributed to the Jewish position on this matter.

Of course, among the similarities was the shared belief that the European Jews should be transferred outside of Germany and the rest of the European continent to a Jewish state. The Zionist stance was received well by Hitler and his supporters and a subsequent agreement was signed that stated a cooperative effort would begin between the two parties to systematically deport German Jews to their "Jewish homeland" in Palestine.

Aside from the systematic deportation of Jews, one of the guidelines of the agreement was that German Jewish migrants to Palestine would promote Hitler's Nazi Germany. Not only were Jews important contributors who promoted German goods in Palestine, but also Jews and Nazis worked together to promote Nazi goods in neighbouring Arab markets, especially in Egypt and Iraq.

Under this agreement was the mutual understanding that Nazis and Jews would work together against the international boycott of Nazi Germany and the Jews acquired experience from their participation in this movement, especially in terms of breaking apart organisations that work towards boycotting racist governments.

Jewish participation in the movement against the boycott campaign was what afforded Nazi Germany the opportunity to survive despite the hostile international climate. These positions also helped to block any conferences the boycott movement organised, leading to a political impasse.

Jewish organisations also fought another battle against the Arab boycott of Israel. They fought the Arab boycott in every way possible and they achieved a huge victory when America threatened to boycott the Arab world in the mid-1970s, which included the implementation of strict penalties and restrictions on all Arab countries that participated in the boycott of Israeli goods.

Israel has vast experience on how to confront boycott movements indirectly and this experience is based on the Zionist movement's ability to prevent any regional cooperation between Arab countries.

Israel fought against the establishment of the Middle East Supply Centre during the 1940s, which took it upon itself, in the interest of regional alliances, to coordinate economic cooperation amongst Arab countries.

The Zionist movement, along with other international groups, also fought against the establishment of the Arab League and any of the League's subsequent efforts to promote economic cooperation in the Arab world.

According to a study published by Martin Weiss in December of last year, "Zionists knew that as long as inter-Arab trade remained weak and as long as cross-regional investments remained few in number, it would be impossible for an Arab boycott of Israel to affect the Israeli economy."

Unlike the battles waged by Israel in Europe and the Arab region, the battles that were fought by apartheid supporters in South Africa failed. What do these experiences imply? How can one explain the success of Zionists in Europe and the Middle East and the failures of racist white supremacists in South Africa? Furthermore, will the fate of the current boycott campaign be similar to previous attempts in Europe and the Arab world or will it resemble the boycott and sanctions against the apartheid system in South Africa?

There are many explanations that can be mentioned here but most important is that the decisive factor in the conflict between racists and Democrats was the presence of a strong international partner for Zionism, who took away many of the obstacles that it faced along its path to achieving its goals.

In the past, Germany was the international partner for the Zionist movement, which afforded them opportunities to assimilate into the Palestinian community. Since the mid-1950s, the US administration has adopted the role of Israel's international partner and threatened any move that sought to rid the Israelis of their legitimacy and their identity. By contrast, Afrikaner supporters of apartheid did not have the opportunity to form such an alliance or coalition with any international partner whether it was Hitler's Germany, the United States or any other European power.

When it comes to the issue of boycotting Israel, Israeli leaders adhere to the lessons that they learned in the past. They have allocated $30 million to forming a counter-movement confronting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign and have recently mobilised Jewish organisations to launch similar campaigns threatening and pressuring organisations that participate in the boycott campaign.

However, Israel will eventually turn to Washington for help, as was suggested by Michael Oren, Israel's former ambassador to the United States. It is within the US Congress' ability, explained Oren, to formulate and pass more laws that would protect Israel from criticism, opposition and pressure. In that case, is it the responsibility of Palestinians and Arabs to protect the boycott movement from the American congress?

Palestinians are able to play an important role in protecting the boycott campaign if they organise and rearrange Palestinian internal affairs. It is imperative that the Palestinians expedite the process of achieving national reconciliation and that they hold long overdue elections in addition to respecting the rights of Palestinian voters.

Rearranging Palestinian internal affairs will serve as the perfect gateway to rearranging Arab internal affairs because the Palestinian issue is the issue that divides Arabs and it is the issue that unites them as well. This is how it has always been and how it will remain.

Dr Raghid El-Solh is a writer and consultant on Arab and regional political affairs and is a member of the Governing Board of the Centre for Lebanese Studies, Oxford. This article is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Quds newspaper on 24 February, 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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