What We Talk About When We Talk About BDS

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Last week a coalition of 22 European NGOs comprised of humanitarian, aid and church groups released a report, Trading Away Peace, which called on the European Union (EU) to rethink its trade relationships vis–à–vis settlements in the West Bank.

The basic premise of the 35-page report is that there is an inconsistency between the EU's language and its actions. On the one hand, the EU believes settlements are illegal and a barrier to peace, and on the other, the trade that takes place between the EU and the settlements helps to entrench the settlement enterprise to the detriment of the possibility of a two-state solution, and with a major humanitarian impact on the lives of Palestinians.

The corollary is that the EU is wasting money as a result of this inconsistent policy, not least because it is the biggest single donor to the Palestinians (and that’s without taking into consideration the financial assistance that European states provide at an individual level). The report ends by making a series of recommendations in relation to actions the EU could take to rectify this situation, from ensuring proper labeling of produce made within West Bank settlements, to banning imports from settlements in their entirety.

The report shines a spotlight on several companies that are well-known exporters from the West Bank, perhaps the most famous being the Ahava cosmetic brand. Here in the UK, we’ve shined our own spotlight on this brand. Earlier this year the Ahava store in Convent Garden, London, was forced to close due to fifteen months of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations that took place outside, creating enough disruption that in the end the lease for the store was not renewed. The BDS campaign claimed victory and announced 'Ahava is on the run' and Jonathan Hoffman, the vice-chair of the Zionist Federation who led the counter-demonstrations, claimed: "The aim of the delegitimisers in the UK is nothing less than a complete eradication of Israeli-owned businesses and Israelis."

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the ongoing blurring of the green line by the BDS movement and some of the pro-Israel camp, which so often manifests in the debate around boycott, does no one any favors. It calls into question the motivation of 'pro-Palestine' campaigners, and supporters of Israel, regardless of whether they support a boycott over the green line, should distinguish between those who advocate a boycott of Israel in its entirety and those who differentiate between over the green line and Israel proper. It’s the blurring of the green line that makes it impossible for people to distinguish between the State of Israel and the actions of its government.

Unlike the somewhat childish debate that takes place here in the UK in relation to boycott, the striking thing about this report is that it puts forward a series of rational points in relation to the legality of trading with settlements. However, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with the following statement: "The report was a report based on half-truths, on untruths and on unsubstantiated facts with a political agenda."

The accusation that the report is peddling a "political agenda" is correct. But the insinuation that it contains an inherent nefarious motive is simply a means of dismissing the content. In the introduction to the report, Hans Van den Broek, former Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and a former EU Commissioner, states: “I am of the opinion that these measures, directed only at illegal settlements outside Israel's recognised borders, do not constitute an anti-Israel agenda. On the contrary, the preservation of the two-state solution, in accordance with international law, should be seen as a contribution to Israel's security and legitimacy.” Later on in the report the reader is told that “a ban on the import of Israeli settlement goods is not a ban or boycott on trade with Israel, which the signatories to this report do not advocate.”

Some recommendations made in the report are already taking place in some EU countries. In 2009, the UK government issued advise to retailers on labeling—the same UK government that created BIRAX, a program for joint scientific collaboration between Israeli and British scientists. The current UK government recently announced five years of multi-million pound funding for BIRAX. Hardly the actions of a country with dubious motives when it comes to Israel.

The political agenda of the report is to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank in order for a Palestinian state to be created. That is hardly controversial. So, by all means, take issue with some of the recommendations, but those who dismiss the report as having an inherent anti-Israel agenda are simply using diversionary tactics so as not to have to deal with the painful question of how Israel actually removes itself from the West Bank.

And, if the last four years of U.S. foreign policy are any indication, regardless of who enters the White House after tomorrow's election, we won't see many (successful) suggestions coming out of the Oval Office. That opens a space for Europe to take more of a lead in setting the agenda when it comes to finding solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The NGO report is one set of recommendations; no doubt many more will need to be put forth if Europe is really to take up that role.