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Western trade to Israel is on the rise, is BDS really working?

There is good news and bad news of late for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. On the one hand, companies such as Veolia, willing partners in the occupation, are losing out on mega-contracts. Despite plans to withdraw from Israel, the French company just lost a $750 million contract to provide waste management services to Kuwait City. Pleasing for BDS was the explicit reference to Veolia’s association with Israel and a head nod to their campaigning efforts. It comes on top of nearly $24 billion in lost contracts, seemingly over support for Israel.

Likewise G4S are suffering setbacks. Earlier this year, Bill Gates announced a massive divestment, while a report over the summer (by the Financial Times) suggested they would soon end their activities in Israel. Campaigners are rightly cautious – the company have gone back on their word in the past.

Companies like G4S and Veolia are the traditional bogeymen of leftist, progressive, anti-war or anti-globalisation movements. They are big targets, household names, transnational corporations that everyone can relate to – and when I say everyone, I mean the general public, not activists.

I can go down to my local train station and see a G4S security van parked outside. I see a Veolia truck pass my house once a week to collect my rubbish. Companies like Hewlett Packard advertise on television.

With such high profile and controversial brands, in some ways – isn’t this the easier end of the campaign?

After all – how many households would sign a petition against Serco? Quite a few, most people have heard of them.

But what then? There are thousands of British companies trading with Israel. Their names, headquarters and management are constantly changing – the past 12 months alone saw 37 acquisitions, mergers and IPOs of those companies. There are hundreds of thousands more trading from other countries. A tiny proportion are household names.

Raising awareness of each of these companies requires disproportionate effort by a small number of time poor activists.

The BDS movement has put itself into a massive fight. And though there are some successes, figures released this week show that UK-Israel trade actually grew by 28 per cent year-on-year in the first half of 2014, now amounting to £2.5 billion. There may be successes here and there, but the machine of modern commerce is an extremely hard one to slow.

And despite the popular narrative of “well, it worked in South Africa”, the uncomfortable truth is that many economists and historians disagree.

“Perversely, South African businesses reaped at least $5 billion to $10 billion in windfalls as Western firms disinvested at fire sale prices between 1984 and 1989,” noted Thomas W. Hazlett, now at George Mason University. The political effect of the sanctions movement saw the white power elite retrench. Apartheid policies worsened – the police and military cracked down even harder.

In truth, the collapse of Soviet Communism, populist black movements in South Africa, white supremacists working with blacks rather than oppressing them, just to keep their families fed – led to the fall of apartheid. It’s nice to think the West played the lead role, but in truth, South Africa did a lot of it itself. Its role is, somewhat patronisingly, rarely acknowledged.

As the BDS movement has grown stronger – the domestic politics of Israel is tipping to the hard right. Attacks on Gaza are becoming more frequent. Knesset hard-liners have advocated genocide against Palestinian mothers, or published detailed plans on their Facebook pages about how the entire population of Gaza should be deported. Attacks on journalists, artists and pro-war activists by far right extremists are on the increase. The Israeli media propagates an us-and-them attitude to not only the Arab world, but also their detractors in the West. Are we already seeing what really happened in South Africa play out? Are the worst parts of Israeli society becoming stronger?

The campaign has some positives with regards solidarity, it contributes to educating the public – but ultimately, we don’t know whether it will make things worse and, as a pro-sanctions or boycott movement, it doesn’t yet have a successful precedent or contemporary model for success – just look at North Korea, Iran, Russia or indeed the porous Arab boycott against Israel.

But aside from the uncertain and potentially dangerous side-effects of BDS, we are ignoring the bigger problem. The crux of bringing the Israeli hawks to heel isn’t so much about corporate investments – it’s about political money, dripping from the campaign coffers of Western politicians bribed and briefed by Jerusalem cronies.

The funding is mysterious, ambiguous and seemingly unimpeachable, protected by anti-Semitism laws which forbid honest discussion of it, or by hasbara attack dogs who discredit any journalist or academic who speaks out.

But imagine the tabloid outcry if hundreds of millions in “Muslim” donations began pouring in to Western politics, Muslims with strong interests in the domestic or foreign policies of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Iran.

You don’t have to imagine – last month Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (and Norway) were caught funding influential foreign policy think tanks in Washington. And there was an outcry.

But many feel uncomfortable taking on the Israeli lobby – because it’s scary. It comes with great risk – people have lost their jobs, careers and reputations. Nobody likes to be labelled an anti-Semite, which is their preferred mode of attack.

Assuming for a moment that South African white supremacists had actually wanted to continue with apartheid, if they had had the financial resources and strategic nous to invest millions into Washington and Westminster, a boycott campaign would have stood almost no chance of success.

Campaigning against corporate involvement in morally dubious interests should not be stopped. I wouldn’t feel comfortable if Western corporations, pension funds, or governments invested in arms deals with dodgy regimes, or became complicit in mass human rights abuses, and nobody knew about it.

But we should recognise the limits of the BDS movement – both by recognising that the “low-hanging fruit” of corporate targets – international corporations who are already disliked by the public, may only be the warm-up, by better understanding what really happened in South Africa, and by asking – are we really attacking the root of the problem?

BDS, in some ways, detracts from directly dealing with the real problem: the foreign policy of the West has been seriously corrupted by Israeli influence, almost wherever you look.

Dismantling “the Israel lobby” is a tougher fight, but it’s a far more important one.

If we are over-awed by the challenge, or if indeed the BDS movement was itself a function of an inability to crack the lobby directly, there may still be cause for optimism. Removing big money from politics, in general, is an extremely populist movement.

There are very few Westerners who want the status quo to continue, for big corporations and foreign interests to hold such sway on our democracies – on any issue. You don’t have to be pro-Palestinian to recognise this.

A broader coalition of groups, from charities, to environmental campaigners, to trade unions, to newer organisations like Change.org and 38 Degrees could be the key. The influence of the Israel lobby isn’t a unique problem. Perhaps by looking to other marginalised groups who face similar challenges, the pro-Palestinian campaign can find yet more life.

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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