The Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the never-ending peace process are back. Not that they ever went away, but the conflict has gotten far more newsprint and bandwidth in the last week or so than it has over the last six months. On Sunday, the New York Times ran three pieces in its “Sunday Review” section that touched on the conflict. Essays by Hirsh Goodman and Omar Barghouti dealt specifically with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign—an issue bound up in politics and fraught with emotions that is linked to the efficacy of non-violent protest, the fight against South African apartheid in the 1980s, and the long effort to deny the Jewish connection to the territory that is now Israel and the West Bank.
The BDS campaign has had some important victories lately. In December, the American Studies Association voted overwhelmingly to boycott Israel’s universities. The members of the Association for Asian-American Studies took a similar decision last spring and the Modern Language Association is believed to be laying the groundwork for a boycott as well. The large Dutch pension fund, PGGM, recently decided to unload its holdings in five Israeli banks. Overall, the idea of bringing Israel’s occupation to an end through non-violent global economic pressure seems to be gaining ground in Europe and on university campuses.
Over the last week, a controversy erupted around Scarlett Johansson’s appearance in a SodaStream commercial that aired during last night’s Super Bowl. The Israeli company, which manufactures “soda makers” allowing consumers to make their own carbonated drinks, has a facility in the large West Bank settlement, Ma’ale Adumim. The SodaStream incident was not a win for BDS—Scarlett Johansson stuck with the company—but it did force a fierce debate ever closer to the mainstream about the injustices of the occupation, the legitimacy of Israel, and how best to express solidarity with the Palestinians.
For the advocates of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign, the issue is clear—Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (and its control over the Gaza Strip) amounts to apartheid. The fence/wall that the Israelis began constructing in 2002, which cuts deep into parts of the West Bank, no doubt provides Israel with security, but it is also undeniably a means to control the majority Palestinian population more tightly. Restricted roads and other critical infrastructure that knit inside-the-green-line Israel to settlements make it hard to imagine how Palestine would ever come to be, leaving Palestinians to exist stateless and without rights as Israelis build around them. This may not be South African apartheid, but the similarities are enough to mobilize the people of goodwill around the world against Israeli injustices. According to BDS activists, the successful campaign against South Africa in the 1980s is a model for righting the historic injustices done to the Palestinians through Israel’s now almost 47-year occupation.
For many Israelis and Israel’s supporters around the world, the situation is not as clear as BDS activists make it. They argue that Israel came into possession of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem by dint of a war waged against it; that even before that conflict, the Arab world refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist; Palestinian leaders have been unable to make a deal despite generous offers from two Israeli prime ministers; and Palestinian extremists responded to Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 with years of rocket fire on Israeli towns.
Pro-Israel voices point to the SodaStream case, in particular, to highlight the complexities of the occupation against the blunt-force activism of the BDS campaign. They argue that the SodaStream facility in Ma’ale Adumim is but one of the company’s 22 manufacturing facilities, which the current owners inherited when they bought the firm in 2007. Everyone knows that Ma’ale Adumim, which is really a suburb of Jerusalem, will be incorporated into Israel in any peace agreement. There are also 500 Palestinians who are employed there, earning the same as Israeli employees. And SodaStream’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, is a supporter of peace who has called the factory in the West Bank a “pain,” but nevertheless does not want to shut down his Ma’ale Adumim operations for fear of what will happen to all his employees there. Israel’s supporters argue further that boycotting SodaStream and in the process forcing it to shut down that single facility will not hurt the company, but will hit its Palestinian employees hard—an odd way of demonstrating solidarity.
Beyond a certain amount of emotional bombast and the historiography that comes with it, both the pro- and anti-boycott narratives are compelling: The occupation is brutal and unjust, but to look at it only in terms of Palestinian suffering without the context of Israel’s fight for a safe and legitimate place in the Middle East is to misapprehend the crux of the conflict and why it endures. At the same time, it is too easy to invoke “context” to shift the debate away from unpleasant facts and realities, such as the 121 settlements and 500,000 settlers who live in the West Bank and an ever-expanding Jerusalem. Israel has a right to exist. The Jewish connection to the land is undeniable. Yet there is a dark flipside to the redemption of a people in their ancient home, and that is the dispossession of its other inhabitants.
Having been left to negotiate the disposition of a mere 21 percent of what they consider to be their own homeland, Palestinians look on with dismay as a colonial project goes on around them and cannot help but conclude that the Israelis really have no intention of trading land for peace. The details of the SodaStream story complicate matters in the BDS debate, but only in a small way. It may very well be that the company is good to its Palestinian employees, but SodaStream seems to be an exception that proves the rule of Israeli exploitation of Palestinian laborers who are paid low wages and who enjoy few, if any, protections. Even the seemingly powerful argument that boycotting SodaStream will only hurt its Palestinian employees reveals how the occupation has produced a situation in which Palestinian economic well-being has become dependent on Israel.
Under these circumstances, you have to wonder what Secretary of State John Kerry believes he can accomplish. Over the weekend, the New Republic’s John Judis reported on a conference call between Kerry’s peace team and pro-Israel groups during which Martin Indyk, U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, offered a broad outline of what the Obama administration envisions in a conflict-ending deal. That rough outline sounds similar to what Hosni Mubarak long advocated: Instead of getting bogged down over the problem of settlements, determine the broad outlines of a deal, including borders, and the rest will take care of itself. Yet it is hard to get around the obstacles that the settlements are. Based on Judis’ reporting, 75 percent of the settlers would remain under Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank through land swaps along with a residual military presence in the Jordan Valley for anywhere from 3 to 10 years and a host of other security guarantees. What will become of the remaining settlers is left open to question. Still, that is a lot of people no matter what method is used to count the settlers. The Palestinians would be hard-pressed to like this deal, but their views do not actually matter much. The Israelis hold virtually every card, and given the configuration of Israeli politics where the right has brought down successive prime ministers, it is highly unlikely that the issue of continued settlements will hinge on whether Scarlett Johansson is hawking SodaStream or not.