As Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to present Israeli and Palestinian negotiators with yet another “framework” agreement, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement (BDS) has been increasingly presented in the media as a legitimate social movement aimed at securing rights for Palestinians in Israel, "under occupation," and in the diaspora. However, nothing demonstrates BDS’ growing influence and game changing potential more than the recent reactions of Israeli leaders and their allies in the U.S. Congress to BDS successes. With expectations exceedingly low on both sides for the latest U.S. peace initiative, the BDS movement offers Palestinians a credible movement aimed at securing their rights when no alternative exists.
The recent international controversy over actress Scarlet Johansson’s endorsement of SodaStream and the December 2013 decision by the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli academic institutions have together brought significant Western media attention to the BDS movement. To be sure, the ASA boycott and Oxfam’s decision to sever ties with Johansson following her endorsement—along with other recent BDS achievements like the formation of the European Union’s anti-settlements policy and the withdrawal by the largest Dutch pension fund and the largest Danish bank of their investments from Israeli banks—will not immediately force the Israeli government to change its policies. However, BDS does not need to immediately cripple the Israeli economy; rather, as Larry Derfner recently asserted, “All the boycott has to do is keep growing, drop by drop . . . for it to succeed.”
Expanded media coverage of the moment can help to address mischaracterizations of its mission and strategy. For example, BDS adherents have long faced accusations of anti-Semitism and been accused of having pernicious intentions, despite the BDS call in 2005, which explicitly urged “non-violent punitive measures” and garnered support from a variety of Jewish groups. What BDS has achieved will undoubtedly be furthered or diminished by the way the movement is portrayed in the media. These recent controversies have expanded coverage of BDS and provided it with a growing place in the discourse on the conflict. Such media attention is in and of itself an important success for the movement.
The New York Times serves as a bellwether of mainstream press coverage, and in recent months BDS proponents can point to both a marked rise in overall coverage of the movement and a relatively more nuanced discussion of its merits and flaws from the newspaper. Social movement scholars William Gamson and Gadi Wolfsfeld have identified three chief services that the media fills for nonviolent resistance groups: mobilization for political support; legitimation in the mainstream discourse; and broadening the scope of the conflict. To that end, overall expanded coverage presents the movement with the possibility of reaching and mobilizing a larger audience, increasing legitimation, and the ability to broaden the scope of the conflict by involving heretofore uninformed or uninvolved actors.
In February alone, Times columnists Roger Cohen and Thomas Friedman authored pieces on BDS developments and their attendant ramifications on the peace process. While Cohen noted that he did not “trust” BDS, he deemed it a “wake-up call” for Israel. Friedman did not specifically reference BDS but cited several of the movement’s recent achievements and called its actions a “third intifada,” which is “based on a strategy of making Israelis feel strategically secure but morally insecure.” The Times also published a lengthy discussion in response to a separate opinion piece on boycotting settlements, featuring letters from a variety of perspectives.
In early February, the New York Times featured one of the movement’s most prominent advocates, Omar Barghouti, offering a defense of the movement and suggesting that “The Israeli government’s view of B.D.S. as a strategic threat reveals its heightened anxiety at the movement’s recent spread into the mainstream.” The Times also provided substantial coverage of the ASA boycott, and its foreign affairs editor, Carol Giacomo, wrote a blog post upbraiding those who sought to suppress free speech in their reactions to the ASA decision. Ahead of the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, the Times also discussed Israeli officials’ plans to “pound the drums about what it regards as the pernicious motives” of the BDS movement. In early March, the paper published an extended debate on the topic, “Is a Settlement Boycott Best for Israel?”
Elsewhere, liberal Jewish intellectuals and journalists have advocated a settlement boycott, or “Zionist BDS,” as Peter Beinart called it, and condemned those who criticize the wider BDS movement for being against the two-state solution while supporting settlement expansion, a conspicuously hypocritical position. Such defense helps combat the notion that BDS is anti-Semitic and provides it a place in the discussion for those who may not be familiar with the movement or are uncomfortable with its tactics.
A growing indication of the increasing influence and potential of BDS is the recent reaction of Israeli leaders and their allies in the U.S. Congress. Amid what the Jerusalem Post called “a growing public perception that the boycott Israel movement is gaining traction,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting with senior ministers on February 9 to discuss ways to combat BDS initiatives. At the meeting, from which left-leaning ministers and the media were excluded, the senior ministers discussed employing legal action against pro-BDS organizations and financial organizations that boycott settlements. The Israeli leaders also discussed encouraging the capitals of allied countries to implement anti-boycott legislation. Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz proffered a “media war” plan that would also utilize Israeli intelligence to expose BDS organizations’ “connection to terror organizations and enemy states.”
According to Haaretz, the Strategic Affairs Ministry has already provided the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence unit with millions in funding “for the purpose of bolstering military surveillance of such organizations.” Israeli leaders also responded harshly to a remark made by Secretary Kerry about “talk of boycotts” as the peace process stalls, with Steinitz calling Kerry’s comments “offensive, unfair and insufferable.” Netanyahu also paid significant attention to the BDS movement in his speech on March 4 at the AIPAC conference, calling the movement’s supporters “anti-Semites” and “bigots.” More than anything, this illuminates the profound concern Israeli leaders have over the BDS movement as it achieves successes and increased coverage.
Similarly, reactions within the U.S. Congress have highlighted anxiety over the movement’s growing success. Illinois Congressmen Peter Roskam and Dan Lipinski introduced a bill in response to the ASA boycott in February that would take away all federal funding for American universities that decide to boycott Israeli institutions. Similar efforts have taken place in New York and Maryland. In other words, these lawmakers are attempting to defend academic freedom—that is, as long as it aligns with their own ideological positions.
A robust international BDS campaign could have profound implications for Israel, particularly at the international diplomatic level. In a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama warned, “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.” In other words, in the absence of a peace deal, the U.S. will be constrained in just how much it can continue to diplomatically shield Israel, even as the BDS movement continues to expand. For instance, the United States cannot force European Union (EU) countries to disregard existing EU law boycotting settlements, nor can it prevent international lawsuits against or divestment from companies operating in settlements. The movement could also have dramatic effects on the Israeli economy. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who recently said that BDS movement “is moving and advancing uniformly and exponentially,” called the ongoing conflict “the glass ceiling of Israel's economy.”
Amid the stalled peace process, the BDS movement provides Palestinians an alternate means of pursuing self-determination. BDS proponents argue that the peace process only offers the possibility of an attenuated state, while the movement addresses the grievances of all Palestinians, not simply those who would live in a future Palestinian state. Moreover, Palestinians who have long been exasperated with their ineffective political parties can see a movement with increasing international legitimacy and efficacy seeking to hold Israel accountable.
With that said, the BDS movement could benefit from this media attention to further explain its aims and the tactics it employs. Although the expanded coverage of the movement will increasingly provide legitimation, the movement could also use this broader reach to explain its rights-based approach, how this approach offers Palestinians a more just solution than the peace process does, and what its implications would be for Israel. Such a campaign would ultimately require a more explicit BDS position on the two-state solution, a particular point of contention between critics and proponents of the movement.
With such little hope for any substantive progress for the next round of peace talks, BDS proponents have kept the spotlight on the denial of Palestinian rights. The BDS movement’s upward trajectory presents an alternative to the stagnant peace process, an alternative that will continue to be aided by increased media coverage. If successful on a larger scale, the movement could exert enough pressure on Israel, both on the economic and international public relations front, to give the Palestinians the political rights demanded in the BDS call.
Adam E. Gallagher is an independent media analyst and writer focusing on U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan. He is a contributor at Tropics of Meta.