World

Forget the Failed Peace Talks—Boycotting Israel Is The True Path To Justice

Secretary of State John Kerry's diplomacy in Israel/Palestine has devolved into political theater of the absurd.

Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April 2013.
Photo Credit: Matty Ster/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s tenth trip to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank last month, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon derided his efforts to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace as “obsessive” and “messianic, ” wishing that Kerry would “win his Nobel Prize and leave us alone.”

But the intensity of Kerry’s diplomatic efforts should not be confused with progress toward that elusive goal. Instead, negotiations appear off-track, if not totally derailed. In an interview last month with al-Arabiya, Kerry refused to set a deadline for putting forth a now much-delayed U.S. framework agreement proposal, and his original April timeframe for a treaty seems all but impossible.  

Based on recent leaks from the negotiating teams, it’s easy to see why negotiations appear stuck, with the United States reduced to largely repackaging stale and discarded ideas from the Clinton administration. For example, Martin Indyk, U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, told Jewish organizations that under Kerry’s plan, 80 percent of Israelis living in illegal settlements in the West Bank could stay in place with their settlements annexed to Israel, seriously calling into question the territorial contiguity and viability of the envisaged Palestinian state.

In addition to Israel’s annexation of major settlement blocs, a senior Palestinian negotiator, Yasser Abed Rabbo, revealed to al-Hayat other details of the proposed framework agreement inimical to Palestinian sovereignty and international law. These include a long-term Israeli military presence in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, a Palestinian capital in only a part of East Jerusalem (most likely Abu Dis, cut off from the heart of Jerusalem by Israel’s apartheid wall), denial of Palestinian refugees’ right of return to the homes from which they were exiled by Israel in 1948, and Israel’s control of Palestinian borders and airspace. In sum, any “semblance of Palestinian sovereignty or geographic unity has been completely torn apart” by Kerry’s proposals, according to Abed Rabbo.

Given the highly unlikely nature of Palestinians ever accepting such detrimental terms, the U.S.-led “peace process,” yet again, has devolved into political theater of the absurd rather than serious diplomacy. This point was confirmed by an Israeli source close to the negotiations, who told The Guardian that Kerry’s goal “is to keep this process on life support for a few more months”  to prevent Palestinians from seeking to advance their rights at the United Nations this fall. “After that,” the source claimed, “we’ll probably see a controlled collapse of the peace process.”

Why, then, is Kerry investing so much political capital and frenetic energy into what amounts to a dog and pony show? It’s because Kerry understands, better than most Israeli politicians, the window for a two-state resolution to the conflict is shutting. In an “Après moi, le déluge” warning to Israel in Munich this month, Kerry  spoke of the “increasing de-legitimization campaign” and boycotts of Israel that are sure to snowball if these talks fail. Rather than heed Kerry’s prediction, Israeli politicians instead chose to shoot the messenger. Cabinet member Naftali Bennett accused Kerry of being a “mouthpiece” for an “anti-Semitic boycott,” while another minister, Yuval Steinitz, reproached him for forcing Israel to “negotiate with a gun to its head.”

The Anti-Defamation League, a stalwart of the Israel lobby, issued as well an open letter to Kerry, arguing that the import of his “comments was to create a reality of its own” and that by merely discussing the growing, Palestinian civil society-led campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, he was bringing it to fruition.  But this ostrich-like attitude neglects the fact that the political class already has not only taken notice of, but has become frightened by, the success of the BDS movement.

In the wake of a successful BDS campaign forcing the actress Scarlett Johansson to resign her post as a global ambassador for the anti-poverty organization Oxfam in favor of retaining her lucrative contract with SodaStream, a corporation profiteering from Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land, recent State Department daily press briefings have been dominated by discussions of BDS.  The press corps has managed to tongue-tie State Department spokespeople, who have unconvincingly tried to explain why the United States sees the boycott of Israeli settlement products as illegitimate, when it claims to view the settlements themselves as being illegitimate.

Meanwhile, at the state and federal levels, lawmakers have attempted to stifle the boycott of Israeli academic institutions complicit in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. A bill in the New York state assembly penalizing academic institutions supporting such boycotts appeared to be on a fast-track to passage, until organizations such as the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Presidents, along with  BDS activists, successfully mobilized to halt it, and The New York Times lambasted it.

Members of Congress, such as Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL),  who introduced last week H.R.4009, the Orwellian-entitled “Protect Academic Freedom Act,” to deny federal education funding to academic institutions supporting the boycott of Israel, should take heed of the growing power of the BDS movement and potential First Amendment challenges to their threats to repress BDS through legislation.

Now that the political classes supporting the status quo are fearful of BDS, it is clear that the movement has firmly entered the third of Gandhi’s four stages of social change: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Although the BDS movement is still far from securing Palestinians’ long-denied human and national rights, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability,” the BDS movement is putting forward a credible, alternative strategy to the discredited “peace process.” And, as Kerry recognizes, this movement will gain significant momentum once these talks finally reach their inconclusive end.

 

Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service. He is the author of the Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

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