On 4 September, a Spanish district court annulled a resolution to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The resolution had been put forward by the municipal council of Ayamonte, a small town situated on the border with Portugal, and advocated for a ban on any association with Israeli companies or organisations.
In late August two Spanish municipalities, Villarrobledo and Sagunto, rescinded their support for BDS only months after declaring their towns "a space free of Israeli apartheid." They were just two of some 60 Spanish towns and cities to have expressed their support for the BDS movement in the past two years. Among them was Valencia – Spain's third-largest city – which joined BDS citing Israeli atrocities committed against Palestinians participating in the Great March of Return in the besieged Gaza Strip earlier this year.
So why the about-turn? One thread tying the above three cases together is ACOM, or Acción y Comunicación sobre Oriente Medio (Action and Communication on the Middle East). ACOM describes itself as a "non-denominational and independent organization that aims to reinforce the political relationship between Spain and Israel by working with governments, political parties, the media and civil society." Yet far from acting as an independent organisation, ACOM has been on the front line of Israel's efforts to quash support for BDS, embroiling the Spanish courts in a tug of war in the process.
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In the case of Ayamonte, ACOM filed a legal suit with the district court to have the council's BDS resolution overturned. Villarrobledo and Sagunto were threatened with legal action if they did not renounce their support for the boycott movement. Speaking about Sagunto, ACOM's President Ángel Mas said that "we will continue to stop the BDS extreme movement from infiltrating the institutions of all Spanish citizens and from breaking the democratic, pluralistic and open nature of our institutions." ACOM has thwarted at least 26 initiatives by Spanish councils and municipalities to promote a pro-BDS position by using these tactics, the Times of Israel reported. The Jerusalem Post estimates this number could be as high as 35.
ACOM makes no attempt to hide its pro-Israel agenda. Its website advocates for "disassembling BDS racism" and cites a strange amalgam of "facts about Israel," including that Israel has a 20 per cent Arab population and that there have been no recognitions of Israel's right to exist by Hamas. If one can draw any conclusion about an organisation from the friends it keeps, its close ties with the US-based Anti-Defamation League, Palestine Media Watch (PMW) – an Israel-based NGO that monitors "incitement" by Palestinian media outlets – and NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based group known to vehemently critique only leftist and pro-Palestinian NGOs, say a great deal about ACOM's agenda.
The organisation also has strong links with Israel's political establishment. In 2017, Israeli Knesset Member Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party joined a delegation from ACOM and NGO Monitor at Spain's parliament to present a joint report on NGOs that "carry out political warfare campaigns against Israel." Lapid has long been connected to the Israeli government's settlement policy, in July 2017 participating in a ceremony at the illegal settlement of Netiv HaAvot, south of Bethlehem, even after the Israeli Supreme Court had ordered the demolition of the outpost and the evacuation of its illegal inhabitants. In May 2018, Lapid claimed that under US President Donald Trump's forthcoming "Deal of the Century" the town of Abu Dis will replace Jerusalem as the capital of any future Palestinian state.
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These links with right-wing NGOs and the Israeli political elite have placed ACOM at the forefront of Israel's anti-BDS war. From music festivals to international events and world football, this war is being fought on many fronts. Domestically, the drive has led Israel to ban several BDS activists from entering the country, including Ana Sanchez Mera who is thought to be affiliated with the BDS National Committee (BNC) and active in Spain's BDS activities. Yet that this latest battle is being played out in the Spanish courts, an unlikely location to say the least, demonstrates that this tug of war extends far beyond the borders of the Jewish state. In this way, the Spanish courts have in many ways become a microcosm for the broader struggle for public opinion, a PR war fought in a murky world of NGOs and only partially-hidden agendas.
Yet in March 2018, ACOM President Ángel Mas was handed a taste of his own medicine. The Committee for Solidarity with the Arab Cause (CSAC), an NGO that receives funding from several Spanish municipalities, filed a 70-page lawsuit against Mas. The move represented the first time a pro-Israel entity had been taken to court in Spain for its activities. Mas said that he was "surprised and disappointed" at the judge's decision to review the lawsuit, calling the move "a frivolous attempt to abuse the Spanish judiciary with propaganda." Mas added that: "Having suffered crippling losses in court, the BDS movement in Spain is switching methods. They are targeting individuals in a smear campaign […] This will not succeed."
This constant legal to-ing and fro-ing shows no sign of abating. Just this week, ACOM published a press release boasting of pending legal action against the city council of Pamplona, in northern Spain. The legal action accuses the council of discrimination against Israelis and Spanish Jews for its no-platforming of Israeli representatives and support for a military boycott, two staples of the BDS movement. With each precedent set, ACOM's and, by extension, Israel's efforts to quash the boycott campaign in Spain gain traction and strength. Though pro-BDS movements like CSAC have begun to play ACOM at its own game, such efforts still lag behind both in quantity and impact. If BDS wishes to maintain momentum and influence, it will have to pull harder in this protracted tug of war.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.