Friday, March 28, 2014

The Debate over BDS

In the last few months there has been an increasing debate among specialists on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the BDS movement--the Palestinian group that calls for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.  One of the topics being debated is whether BDS is calling only for the end of the Israeli occupation or is going well beyond that, seeking the end of a Jewish-majority Israeli state in favor of a binational single Jewish-Palestinian state.

I've been investigating the issue, and here are my thoughts.

What is BDS’s position, especially on the right of return and the one-state vs binational state debate?

I went on the BDS website, where there are several important statements of the movement’s principles and goals. The two key documents are “Introducing the BDS Movement” and the “Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS of July 2005.” Both of these documents, as well as many statements and opeds by leading members and supporters of BDS, set forth the following three principles for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

1. Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall.

2 Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

In my view, the first principle is by far the most important one, and it is increasingly widely accepted by the West as a whole and by prominent and even not-so-leftist Israelis—such as an apparent majority of retired Mossad and Shin Bet directors. There can be no serious challenge to this principle by people of good will and some rudimentary understanding of the irrefutable facts on which it is based.

Principle #2: Similarly, both the factual and moral basis for this principle are unimpeachable. However, it is likely to be seen as a distraction and of a significantly lower order of importance and urgency than ending the Israeli occupation, repression, economic warfare, and the not-infrequent assassinations or outright murder of the Palestinian people.

Moreover, a great many Israelis—including many right-wingers—recognize, deplore, and promise to do something about the various forms of discrimination and second-class citizenship of the Palestinian Israelis. For this reason, if there was an overall Israeli-Palestinian state settlement, the likelihood of realizing equal rights for all citizens of Israel would be dramatically improved.

Principle #3. This is by far the weakest and perhaps even self-defeating principle, and clearly it is the major obstacle to a far wider support of serious U.S. pressures being brought to bear on Israel to end the occupation. I interpret this principle to include not merely a right of return but the creation of a binational Israeli-Palestinian state—for if millions of “refugees” were to “return” to Israel that would be the de facto result.

For BDS to continue insisting on this principle is a serious mistake, both in terms of its consequences and on the merits. In practical terms, it has no chance of being realized—it is not part of the international consensus settlement (as opposed to some minimal and largely symbolic return); the Israelis will never accept it; most non-Israeli “liberal Zionists” will balk at it as well; and no Western government will insist on it as part of an overall settlement.

It is no more convincing on the merits. For starters, citing UN 194 of 1948 as the legal and moral basis for a full right of return of all Palestinian refugees since 1948 is quite unpersuasive.  To begin, the resolution applies to “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours,” and it clearly referred to 750,000 Palestinians from the 1947-48 period, and in no way can be plausibly interpreted to include all the millions of their descendants in the past sixty-six years. And continuing indefinitely?

Secondly, the legal meaning of 194 aside, it must now be considered moot, for it has been overtaken by time and events.

The task now--and it wouldn't be all that difficult if the non-symbolic Israeli-Palestinian issues were  solved--is to reconcile the psychology and symbolism of the issue with the practical realities, which will allow no more than a limited and largely symbolic return of some tens of thousands refugees and their families. Not only is that the most likely and wise solution to the issue, but insufficient attention has been paid to the demonstrable fact that Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas have made it unmistakably clear that they would accept such a compromise in the context of an overall settlement based on the international consensus principles.

Similarly, it is a mistake for BDS to continue to be associated with a binational state, again on both the practical consequences and the merits of the issue. Some Palestinian supporters of BDS have challenged the characterization of the organization as opposed to the continuing existence of Israel as a Jewish state, arguing that, in fact, almost all the leading BDS leaders support a two-state solution. Others take a different approach, arguing that BDS is a “rights-based” rather than a “political” movement, and is therefore consistent with any settlement that protects the individual and collective rights of the Palestinian people.

For several reasons, I don’t find this a convincing line of argument. To begin with, BDS’s emphasis on the right of return, as well as statements and even NY Times opeds by some of its most prominent members or supporters, ensures that BDS will continued to be associated with the concept of a binational state.

Secondly, I don’t really understand what it means to say that a movement dealing with obvious political issues is simply “rights based”—especially if by rights one means not merely individual but also collective and national rights. How else can such rights be realized except in a political framework? And the only political framework that has any chance of success—bleak as the prospects are now—is a two-state one.

As for the merits of the binational state idea, I won't repeat here what I have frequently written, including on this blog.  In brief, I have argued not only that a binational state has no chance of being established--given Israeli and to a considerable extent Palestinian attitudes-- but that it would be more likely to end disastrously if it were, especially for the Palestinians, but probably for the Jews as well. It is hard for me to understand how advocates of this idea can ignore the recent history of one binational (or bireligious, or bicultural, or bilinguistic, or bitribal) state after another ending in bloody civil or communal war.

Is BDS Succeeding?

While it is undoubtedly true that while some of the discourse on the I-P conflict in recent years has become far more serious and critical of Israel, BDS hasn’t made much headway among the key governments --Israel and US—or in the American Jewish community, whose support or at least non-diehard resistance is crucial if there is ever to be any serious US pressure on Israel to agree to end the occupation and allow the creation of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

BDS optimists point to the fact that in recent months student bodies in a handful of college campuses--as well as a single professional association--have passed resolutions supporting BDS and sanctions.  While of doubted symbolic importance, however, the significance of a handful of such resolutions should not be overstated--especially when such resolutions have been repudiated by most other colleges and professional associations.

More importantly, of course, it can hardly be argued that BDS is pushing Israel towards a fair settlement. Indeed, it might even be having the reverse consequence, hardening Israeli views and psychoses even further—“the whole world is against us anyway” and all of that.

What Should be Done?

As I have argued, BDS and its supporters should make it unmistakably clear that they are not seeking to “delegitimize” Israel—as opposed to its occupation and repression of the Palestinians--or to undermine its status as a predominantly Jewish state. To this end, it will be important for BDS to revise its founding charter—just as Arafat and the PLO found it necessary to revise its founding charter, and as Hamas will have to do if it is ever to be accepted as a legitimate partner for a negotiated settlement.

Further, BDS should expand its membership and leading spokesmen from the various Palestinian organizations that currently comprise it, so as to include non-Palestinians—especially the Israeli and American Jewish liberal Zionists who are thoroughly sick of what Israel has become, but will not support BDS as it currently stands, or is reasonably interpreted.

It is perfectly understandable and legitimate that a movement for national liberation should begin and be led by the oppressed victims of colonialism and occupation, but its eventual success would be greatly enhanced if it became and was seen as a movement requiring support by all peoples and their governments who purport to seek human rights and justice.


pabelmont said...

UNGA 194 was passed in 1948 about the same time the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was enacted, each expressing -- as to displaced persons -- the right to return to their own country. If "194" had been forgotten in the years since 1948, forgotten by Palestinians and forgotten by the UNGA, one might argue (as you did above) that it was overtaken by events. However -- in my view -- where UNGA has renewed "194" annually (or often) and where the Palestinians have never forgotten it, it is not overtaken by events.

To say it is overtaken is to say that right denied illicitly (that is, by a criminal act) ceases to be a right if the denier brazenly continues to deny it for long enough.

I am sorry you wish this right to be eclipsed.

I for one would not wish the "right not to be killed" which I believe attached to the victims of the Holocaust to be permanently eclipsed merely because overtaken by events.

Maybe some events are better or more puissant than others.

Jerome Slater said...

I was not aware that the UNGA had been regularly renewed. If so, and if there had been a reasonably recent official renewal, that would necessitate some change in my argument--but not all that much. By some counts, there are 7 million descendants (!!) of the original refugees, so a "return" of all of them would obviously be totally out of the question, regardless of whether or how often the UN has returned to the original wording.

In that sense, even if it is true that the Palestinians have never forgotten about it, the circumstances have changed so much that it may fairly be said to be irrelevant now, overtaken by the new realities.

Ael said...

I think the fundamental issue is individual redress. By being denied their ability to return they were individually disadvantaged. Therefore they have a right to individual redress. According to 194, refugees have the right to *choose* between return or compensation.

If one does not want people to choose to return, then clearly one should raise the attractiveness of the compensation. For example, I suspect most refugees would choose monetary compensation and a green card over a patch of rubble in an Israeli forest.

However, since the refugees are the wronged party, they are the ones who get to choose (not me, nor anyone else).

Anthony Greco said...

The BDS website's statement of the first principle is a welcome change from earlier formulations, which spoke of the end of "occupation and colonization of all Arab lands." As both Peter Beinart and MJ Rosenberg have argued, the lack of reference to the 1967 borders certainly gave the impression that "all Arab lands" implied all of Palestine, including Israel within the green line. Perhaps we can hope for a similarly positive adjustment to the wording of the third principle.

Jerome Slater said...

AEL: Well said, and I completely agree.

Anthony Greco: I was not aware that the first principle had been changed in the manner you describe. And because of that earlier willingness to respond to constructive criticism, it augers well for, as you put it, "a similarly positive adjustment to the wording of the third principle."

Thanks to both of you for providing relevant new information that I was unaware of.

Jeff Warner said...

I agree with the approach of this post. In fact, I wrote a similar piece last week making most of the same points,
I titled my piece "Settlement Boycott Yes; BDS No: Does That Let The Perfect Kill The Good?"
because I worried that my analysis was off base. It was good to see my analysis confirmed.

Jeff Warner said...

I have an additional thought about refugee compensation - it should be means tested. The goal is to focus the compensation towards the refugees most in need - those in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and only symbolically to refugees living middle-class lives in the U.S., Europe, or Arab capitals.

Unknown said...

I disagree with this column on a number of issues, Jerry, but here I'd just point out that it rests on a fundamental definitional confusion that is apparent from your first sentence: You define "the BDS movement" as "the Palestinian group that calls for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel." But BDS is not a group, Palestinian or otherwise - it's a set of tactics. The BDS National Committee (BNC), a wide coalition of the largest Palestinian organisations, trade unions, networks and NGOs, spotlighted these tactics with the call they released in 2005, signed by 173 organizations, and promotes them through its website, Many of those trying to use BDS tactics abroad look to the BNC for leadership, but it's inaccurate to reduce "the BDS movement" to the BNC, or even to the BNC plus those who completely endorse all of the BNC's views. Among the countless groups and individuals around the world who support BDS tactics in one form or another, there are varying emphases and degrees of agreement and disagreement with the BNC's positions. (Among many other examples, don't forget Gush Shalom.)

So when you try to tell "BDS" that this or that is a mistake or ineffective or whatever, you're not making much sense. If you want to tell the BNC that it should adopt your politics instead of their own, go ahead and do that, but at least be clear about whom you're talking to.

Anonymous said...

From George P. Smith

Jerome Slater: "Others take a different approach, arguing that BDS is a 'rights-based' rather than a 'political' movement, and is therefore consistent with any settlement that protects the individual and collective rights of the Palestinian people."

BDS is rights-based, not because it's apolitical, but because it has transformed the struggle from a squabble over land sovereignty to a quest for basic justice and human rights. That's why it has gained such traction around the world, including among a growing number of Jews. Your belittling of its power is belied by the fear that is palpable in the almost frantic Zionist response to it. Zionism can deal with armed struggle. It has no answer to a civil rights movement. Removing the "threat" of equal rights is not going to make a two-state resolution more likely.

The claim that the Palestinian right of return is a dead letter ignores "sumud": the steadfastness of Palestinians' claim to their homeland. If the Nakba had ended in 1949, perhaps they might have forgotten in a couple of generations, as Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders hoped at the time. But Israel renews the Nakba annually at varying levels of intensity, ensuring that the sore keeps festering, and that Israel will continue to live by the sword. And are you seriously arguing that recent Jewish colonists and their descendants have a greater claim to the 78 percent of Palestine that was ethnically cleansed for their benefit than do the descendants of the Palestinians who were expelled in the process?