Earlier this year, I took a look at a booklet by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) called ‘The Apartheid Smear’, authored by staffer Alan Johnson. Intended as a “vital tool” for fighting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, the publication is full of errors and omissions; for example, it doesn’t mention the illegality of Israeli settlements even once.
I am returning to BICOM and Alan Johnson, following the latter’s interventions in recent debates on BDS and antisemitism. Johnson presents himself as a leftist when arguing Israel’s corner, especially in contexts where Israeli apartheid gets short shrift (e.g. campuses). He also tends to repeat the same points again and again – so here is the BICOM guide to defending Netanyahu’s Israel.
1. Repackage old smears
Israel and its supporters have long used the charge of ‘antisemitism’ to dehumanise Palestinians and delegitimise solidarity. But a tired tactic needs freshening up. In a debate on the Israel boycott in July’s Prospect, Johnson wrote that antisemitism today is a product of “anti-Israeli sentiment of a particularly excessive, demented kind”, adding: “I call this ‘anti-Semitic anti-Zionism.’”
Johnson is fond of the phrase ‘antisemitic anti-Zionism’ (which, despite his pretensions, was used at least as far back as the mid-1980s): it was the title of his lengthy submission to Labour’s Chakrabarti Inquiry. Last year, writing in BICOM’s self-styled ‘journal’ Fathom which he edits, Johnson elaborated on what he calls the “three components” of “antisemitic anti-Zionism.”
According to Johnson, antisemitic anti-Zionism includes: support for a democratic one state; speaking of Israel as a ‘settler-colonialist state’ which ‘ethnically cleansed’ Palestinians; and the BDS Movement. In other words, despite the veneer of nuance, BICOM is singing from the same song sheet as the right-wing Israeli politicians who attack BDS activists as ‘antisemites’.
2. Emphasise the need for ‘both sides’ to make ‘compromises’
In the aforementioned Prospect debate, Johnson claims that “Palestinian statehood will only be achieved by deep mutual recognition, face-to-face negotiations, excruciating compromises on both sides, and the division of the land into two states.” But what exactly are these ‘excruciating compromises’ that the likes of BICOM are so fond of talking up?
In an instructive 2011 piece for The Huffington Post, Johnson is explicit about the “excruciatingly painful compromise” demanded of Palestinians: “their acceptance that the refugees, or almost all the refugees, are not coming back”, in order to preserve Israel as “the state of the Jewish people.”
So what is Israel’s corresponding ‘painful compromise’? He doesn’t name one. Or rather, the closest Johnson gets is an almost throwaway remark that “the vast majority of Israelis have accepted two states for two peoples – the Jewish state must co-exist alongside a viable Palestinian state.”
Aside from the fact that this is a contestable assertion, what sort of ‘compromise’ is this anyway? That Israel cannot rule over non-citizen Palestinians in perpetuity? Does BICOM consider respect for international law a generous gesture of ‘compromise’?
In other words, what Johnson means by ‘excruciating compromises’ is that Israel only keeps some of its illegal settlements, rather than all of them; that Israel maintains a discriminatory ethnocracy and denies Palestinian refugees’ right of return – but doesn’t get to colonise all of the West Bank.
3. At all costs, preserve faith in the discredited ‘peace process’
For Israel’s lobbyists, it is imperative to maintain the illusion that ‘both sides’ are a few conciliatory gestures away from a negotiated settlement. Here’s how Johnson likes to put it: “You think Israel has peace in the palm of its hand, but won’t hand it over, so your job is to prise its fingers away. Not so.”
Why is it so vital to preserve faith in the discredited peace process? In a 2015 panel discussion about how to fight BDS, Johnson stressed the importance of Israel being “perceived” to be supportive of the “two states for two peoples” framework, in order to weaken the calls for outside pressure.
Of course, this means whitewashing or ignoring the hard-right nationalism of an Israeli government where nine cabinet ministers are explicitly opposed to the two-state solution, and which continues to advance settlement growth, house demolitions, and anti-democratic legislation.
It also means invoking a history of supposed generous deals Israel has offered to Palestinians – who inexplicably rejected them (are they inherently violent? Stupid? Johnson doesn’t say).
Such a mythical timeline presents Israel as conciliatory, suggests a negotiated settlement – in the right circumstances – is doable because the sides have come close before, and, blames the occupied Palestinians as responsible for the lack of a solution thus far.
During ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014, Johnson participated in a panel event in London on the events in Gaza – and the impact on lobbying for Israel in Britain. The BICOM man’s assessment was gloomy: “I think Israel has lost the battle to frame, or to interpret, the conflict, by and large”, he said.
“The consequences of losing these arguments have been and are going to be immense”, he added. Already on the back foot, BICOM and other pro-Israel elements have, since 2014, been waging a desperate counter-offensive against growing support for Palestinian rights and the BDS Movement.
The role of Johnson, and those like him, is to give an academic and liberal democratic veneer to familiar talking points, and, at all costs, prevent Israel from being held to account for its decades-old, and ongoing, systematic violations of human rights and grave breaches of international law.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.