March 20, 2012

Peter Beinart spills the Beans

Peter Beinart's argument for why boycott only settlements' goods never made any sense. According to Beinart

boycotting anything inside the green line invites ambiguity about the boycott’s ultimate goal — whether it seeks to end Israel’s occupation or Israel’s existence. (New York Times, March 18, 2012 )

But that is simply not true. The Boycott is a strategy for pressure, not a strategy of representation. If I don't buy Avocados from Israel, this is not because Israelis use avocados to oppress Palestinians. It is because I send a message that I am willing to take punitive action against Israel. The actual pressure is not a representation of the offense, just as the prison term that I would like Tzipi Livni to serve is not a representation of the crime of bombing civilians.

Beinart is taking advantage of the fact that the BDS movement does not offer a blueprint for a resolution in order to read into a purely strategic question, what pressure is effective, a symbolism that simply isn't there. There is no logical reason why, for example, a "Zionist BDS" of the kind Beinart envisages would not boycott high tech products made in Tel Aviv on the basis of an explicit demand that Israel return to the 67 borders.

Most of the left critique of Beinart focuses on his misguided attachment to a state that is Jewish for Palestinians and democratic for Jews. I completely concurs with that critique but I think it is equally important to understand Beinart's strategy.

for a few years now, the Reut Institute has emerged as the strategic brain of a coordinated approach to defending Israel from the international grassroots struggle against it, and most importantly from BDS, which the Reut institute dubbed a "strategic threat" to Israel. The Reut institute proposes a strategic defense based on a number of principles, of which I want to highlight three that are most important (see for e.g.:

  • Countering the growing grassroots solidarity with Palestinians by aping its key methods, including relying on networks, community work and division of labor between local work and global coordination.
  • A big tent approaches that accepts the legitimacy of criticism of Israel, even harsh, provided that the "red line" of "denying Israel's right of self-determination" is not crossed.
  • Driving a wedge between those who support BDS but are not committed to supporting full Palestinian rights and those who do. According to Reut, the latter, called "catalysts," are relatively few but have an enormous impact. They can therefore be isolated and neutralized.

There is a lot to be said about this reactionary agenda, but it serves no purpose to deny that the Reut institute makes a reasonably good effort to provide intelligence and strategy services for a "counter-insurgency" campaign against BDS based on the familiar "winning hearts and minds" model.

In responding to his right-wing critics, Beinart effectively defended his own effort by highlighting its compliance with the Reut institute's template:

Let’s imagine you’re some left-leaning Christian denomination. You’ve recently sent some of your ministers to the West Bank and they’ve come back appalled because, well, most people who see the occupation up close come back appalled. They want to do something. Their local BDS activists tell them to boycott Israel. Their local Jewish organizational officials tell them that doing so would be anti-Semitic.

Right now, they have no way to oppose Israel’s occupation without opposing Israel’s existence. Zionist BDS offers them that alternative. Without it, the Jewish organizations may pressure them into not boycotting Israel this year, but every time they go back and see the settlements expanding further, they’ll be more inclined to do so. And the more they see the one state reality that settlements are creating, the more they’ll embrace for practical reasons what BDS activists embrace for ideological ones: a future that dismantles Israel as a Jewish state. (Beinart, The Daily Beast, March 20, 2012 )

Thus, the virtue of a Boycott of the settlements that Beinart highlights is that it would drain support for BDS by separating soft supporters from the BDS leadership, offering an alternative that allows criticism of Israel but doesn't threaten it too much, and working with wavering organizations, individuals and communities in a manner that copies the BDS model. The limitation of the boycott to the settlements is a convenient branding, since it isn't material to any of Beinart's professed goals.

I'll be charitable and accept that Beinart honestly believes that his proposed strategy can also end the occupation. It is worth noting that this is not the opinion of the Reut Institute which has no interest in ending anything.

Surely, a credible and persistent commitment by Israel for a peace that establishes a Palestinian state and brings about an “end of conflict” would weaken the grounds of Israel's delegitimization. However, the viability of the peace process is undermined by several structural obstacles, such as the effective actions of the resistance network to sabotage it and the constitutional and political crisis within Palestinian politics. This reality necessitates an Israeli strategy to fight delegitimization within the context of political stalemate. (Eran Shayshon, The Jewish Journal, 4/27/2010)

In other words, ending the occupation would be nice, but it can't be done because the Palestinians aren't ready, so let's focus on what's important, defending Israel.

Beinart's proposal, if it were to put to work, would be a joint effort by deluded but honest folks and cynical strategists like Shayson. There is little chance that it would achieve even the limited goals of ending the occupation. Why? Because the strength of BDS is tied to its Palestinian leadership and the way it puts Palestinian concerns at the center of the struggle. It is this commitment that both captures the imagination of solidarity activists and creates dynamics that sidestep distractions, build unity and focus energies on effective action. The movement that Beinart proposes would be, in contrast, led by Jews and put Jewish concern at its center. Jews, however, are not those who are oppressed by Israeli apartheid. Thus, a large part of the energy and commitment that Beinart movement will have to mobilize in order to succeed will always be derivative. Beinart himself describes his key motivation as fear over the destruction of Zionism. Beinart's movement will have to mobilize primarily on the basis of that fear which is generated by BDS rather than on the basis of principles of justice that demand the end of the occupation (that is not to deny that Beinart truly finds the occupation abhorrent). Fear is a reactive driver. As long as BDS advances, such an anti-BDS movement built on fear could theoretically piggy back on it and grow as well. But if the Shayson strategy succeeded in weakening BDS, a critical mass of Beinart's activists would go home, and the occupation would continue. It's like mistaking a thermostat for a water heater.

Taking into consideration the willingness of the New York Times to publish such calls as well as the deep similarities between Beinart's proposal and Reut's model of counter-insurgency, this development should be taken seriously. Beinart wants to offer an alternative big tent to BDS. Criticizing the ideological premises of this effort is important. But it is also important to say to those who are still dreaming of ending the occupation and keeping a Jewish state that what they are being offered is snake oil and more occupation. While I support and prefer a single, democratic state, I have no crystal ball to predict what kind of resolution will follow if we succeed in putting on Israel unbearable pressure. But I can predict with confidence that Beinart's effort can only help entrench the occupation. That is not a step in the right direction, even if the intention is halfway decent.

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