The boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign has become the dominant frame for viewing the Israel-Palestine conflict in recent years and Omar Barghouti has been its most high-profile exponent. Despite the author’s dogmatic insistence that BDS is triumphant, his book Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights demonstrates the real political confusion behind BDS and why socialists should oppose it.
The BDS campaign dates from 9 July 2005, when a gathering of 170 Palestinian organisations, including unions and civil society groups demanded boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Barghouti argues that BDS has almost all the ingredients for a successful campaign: a comprehensive, rights-based approach, a morally compelling message, an empowering strategy of nonviolent, creative civil resistance and a massive civil society coalition.
BDS makes three demands on Israel:
• ending the occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands [occupied in 1967] and dismantling the wall;
• recognising the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
• respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinians refugees to return to their homes and properties.
These are often dressed in the garb of UN resolutions. The first two demands are completely reasonable for any democrat or socialist. However there are fundamental problems with the demand for the right of return. First and foremost, it is a slippery formula, evasive about who it applies to – is it simply those displaced in 1948 or all Palestinians, does it mean the same place they were living then, or simply immigration into a new Palestinian state? Ultimately the demand is incoherent with regard to the political basis of a democratic solution to Israeli-Palestinian relations. The BDS campaign publicly fudges the question of the political solution. Officially “the BDS movement as such does not adopt any special political formula and steers away from the one-state-versus-two-states debate”.
However Barghouti is quite explicit about his view. He states: “I have for over twenty-five years consistently supported the secular democratic unitary state solution in historic Palestine”. He laments that now “there is no political party in Palestine now or among Palestinians in exile calling for a secular, democratic state solution”. His politics are the PLO’s, frozen in 1987.
Barghouti is also unequivocally opposed to a two states solution. He says: “The two-state solution is not only impossible to achieve now – Israel has made it an absolute pipe dream that cannot happen – but also, crucially, an immoral solution. At best it would address some of the rights of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, a mere one-third of the Palestinian people”. But in a moment of candour, he reveals that the political basis of BDS is not compatible with two states either. He wrote: “You cannot practically reconcile the right of return for refugees with a negotiated two-state solution”. There it is in black and white: support BDS and you are tied to a single state solution.
Barghouti offers an impoverished version of self-determination. He moralises that “A call signed by more than 170 Palestinian political parties, unions, nongovernmental organisations, and networks, representing the entire spectrum of Palestinian civil society... cannot be ‘counterproductive’ unless Palestinians are not rational or intelligent enough to know or articulate what is in their best interest”. He says no Palestinian party stands for a single state - but there is no need to defer to that opinion. So much for the commitment to Palestinian self-determination: 170 organisations call for boycott; but no-one is for his real objective - secular, democratic state. Too bad for the Palestinians – they can be trusted with the means, but not the end. His sleight of hand is to do away with the idea of national rights altogether. He reduces Palestinian oppression to racial rather than national terms, hence all the rhetoric about apartheid.
On the other side, Barghouti simply denies that Israeli Jews have any right to self determination at all. He cannot conceptualise them as a nation, therefore their self determination is not even discussed. He sugar-coats his “solution”, saying he wants “a secular democratic state where nobody is thrown into the sea, nobody is sent back to Poland, and nobody is left suffering in refugee camps”. Yet there is no explicit criticism of Hamas in the book. The nearest he comes is a jibe at those “addicted to the armed model of resisting the occupation”. Later he simply dismisses the problem of Hamas’ politics altogether: “It’s irrelevant whether or not Hamas accepts Israel’s so-called right to exist as a Jewish state (read: an apartheid state) or accepts the ’67 borders – totally irrelevant”. He therefore simply avoids the problem with the single state solution, whether secular or Islamic: neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis get to exercise their own, self-defined, self-determination.
The Israeli left
Barghouti’s failure to engage with the right of Israeli Jews to self-determination is clear from his contempt for the Israeli left. He asks rhetorically, what left? “In fact, most of what passes as ‘left’ in Israel are Zionist parties and groups that make some far-right parties in Europe look as moral as Mother Teresa”. “What Israeli peace movement? There is no such creature. The so-called peace groups in Israel largely work to improve Israeli oppression against the Palestinians, rather than eliminate it, with their chief objective being the guarantee of Israel’s future as a ‘Jewish’ – that is, exclusivist – state. The most radical Israeli ‘Zionist-left’ figures and group are still Zionist, adhering to the racist principles of Zionism that treat the indigenous Palestinians as lesser humans who are the obstacle or a ‘demographic threat’...” He explicitly defames those who argue that the logic of the right of return would be the elimination of the state of Israel. For Barghouti, “the only true fighters for peace in Israel are those who support our three fundamental rights: the right of return for Palestinian refugees; full equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel and ending the occupation and colonial rule”.
Laughably, Barghouti states that the BDS movement “does not subscribe to drawing up lists to decide who is a good Israeli and who is not based on some arbitrary political criteria”. Yet this is precisely what he does. Either accept the BDS strategy and the three conditions, or you’re not left, really a Zionist and no doubt complicit with the oppression of Palestinians. He narrows progressive Israelis to only those who support BDS – eliminating for example the refusniks, the peace movement, the unions and various writers. All the rest are branded with inverted commas.
Boycott strategy or tactic
Barghouti is quite upfront that BDS ultimately means ostracising everything Israeli. The campaign is “working to expel Israel and its complicit institutions from international and interstate academic, cultural, sporting... environmental, financial, trade, and other forums. He soft-soaps that “groups that for tactical reasons support only a subset of BDS, or a targeted boycott of specific products or organisations in Israel, or supporting Israel, are still our partners. Boycott is not a one-size-fits-all type of process. What is important to agree on, though, is why we are boycotting and towards what ends”. He distinguishes between advocating such a targeted boycott as a tactic, leading to the ultimate goal of boycotting all Israeli goods and services, and advocating such a targeted boycott as the ultimate strategy. While the former “may be necessary in some countries as a convenient and practical tool to raise awareness and promote debate about colonial and apartheid regime, the latter, despite its lure, would be in direct contradiction with the stated objectives of the Palestinian boycott movement”.
Barghouti is also clear that the boycott of settlement goods alone is not sufficient. The BDS movement, he says,” views the approach of focusing on banning only settlement products as the ultimate goal – rather than the first, convenient step towards a general Israeli products boycott – as problematic, practically, politically and morally”. At a practical level “Israel has made it extremely difficult to differentiate between settlement and other Israeli products, simply because the majority of parent companies are based inside Israel or because colony-based companies have official addresses there”. Politically “even if distinguishing between produce of settlements and produce of Israel were possible, activists who on principle – rather than out of convenience – advocate a boycott of only the former may argue that they are merely objecting to the Israeli military occupation and colonisation of 1967 and have no further problems with Israel”. Finally, there is a moral problem with accepting these “two grave... violations of human rights and international law as givens”.
BDS may seem in the ascendant for now. It may make progress in places, on the back of the Israeli state’s next atrocity. BDS needs to be fought politically, because it stands in the path of two states, the only consistently democratic solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But BDS is ultimately a pessimistic approach. It put the agency for change outside of the region. It wants civil society, which includes not only NGOs and unions but bourgeois governments and business internationally to make things right for the Palestinians. There is another road. The Palestinian workers in alliance with Israeli workers fighting for a two state democratic solution to the national question, is the force that could deliver peace and much more besides.