Beinart is wrong: We won't build Israel's future by boycotting it today

By Mick Davis, April 6, 2012

In the course of promoting his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart has argued that American Jews should promote a boycott of settler–produced goods. He appears to suggest that this should be pursued as some kind of communal priority.

Many will recall that Peter and I were in "conversation" when I made a few controversial remarks about the approach of the current Israeli administration towards the peace process. But my central message that evening, one that I have developed since then together with other diaspora figures at the Herzliya Conference, was that diaspora Jewry has a legitimate voice in the ongoing building of the modern State of Israel.

This includes debate around the pursuit of peace and a two-state solution. I have always made clear that my vision of a "Big Jewish Conversation" between the diaspora and our Israeli brethren is about a voice, not a vote or a veto, and that it is not the role of diaspora communities to become involved in discussions on matters directly related to security and defence.

However, Beinart has got this spectacularly wrong. Peter's recent contribution is just not helpful to anyone. It is exactly the kind of intervention that will close down the potential for a constructive Israel/diaspora dialogue before it even begins.

Peter is a sincere Jew, a passionate Zionist who is at odds with the current policies of the government of Israel. Some may agree with him but his position as published in the New York Times is destructive and does not facilitate the robust but unifying conversation that must take place across the Jewish world. The call for a boycott by a committed Zionist, even if it is confined to settlement goods, legitimises the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as a whole and is a significant move towards outright boycott and isolation.

We must accommodate different forms of activism and create the space for respectful discussion of the issues

Those at the heart of the BDS movement, as recently articulated by none other than one of its founding fathers, Omar Barghouti, see such targeted BDS programmes as "a tactic leading to the ultimate goal of boycotting all Israeli goods and services". Israel does not merit that outcome and should not be put in that position of risk.

While ongoing settlement activity appears inconsistent with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's own declaration of support for two states for two peoples and his recent indication in the Knesset of the likely final-status borders, settlements are not a Trojan horse designed permanently to emasculate a Palestinian state, as Peter suggests. Like many in our community, I am far from being a fan of the settlement-building enterprise. However, as I recently said to Prime Minister David Cameron, it is a tactical error to place opposition to settlement building at the heart of the discourse. President Barack Obama's focus on this effectively stalled the peace process for two years.

The "Big Conversation" that I seek is one where we are free, and have a duty, to engage where we perceive that the actions or inaction of the political leadership in Israel are not consistent with Jewish values and the pursuit of peace. The Big Conversation I seek is one which is open and direct, where we are heard and where our contribution is respected.

Equally, I envisage a conversation in which we see more frank, open and direct engagement with our community from the leadership of Israel. Delegitimisation and the BDS movement strike at Israel from our back yard. We stand ready and prepared to take on the duty of fighting them. I have ensured that this is a core priority for communal resources. It must follow from this that we are also a hub for this Big Jewish Conversation and a focal point for many of its components.

We must also speak among ourselves about ourselves. When we doubt the commitment of people who both love and yet wrestle with Israel we fuel a corrosive process that threatens to demotivate and drive away some of its most effective allies and friends, ultimately driving a wedge between many diaspora Jews and the Jewish state. In other words, we do the delegitimisers' job for them.

But it is not just about advocacy and politics. These concerns must be recognised and welcomed if we are to maintain the integrity of a people rooted in an ancient, immutable set of values that we first brought to the community of nations. These anxieties stem from the tension between an innate desire to defend Israel and the Jewish people, while at the same time playing a full and active role in the internal Jewish conversation and debate about the best way to promote peace.

As Israel's ambassador to the UK has often said, we need to move away from the model of classical music to that of jazz. We must accommodate different voices, different forms of activism. It follows that we must also create the space for respectful discussion of the issues.

I was in Israel recently and I sensed that fear of nuclear proliferation in Iran, regional instability, a disaffected middle class and a stalled and moribund peace process are threatening to destroy hope and are harbingers of despair. Most Israelis still harbour a deep longing and a desire for a two-state solution but many (often for different reasons) now feel there is little chance of achieving it.

Many in the international community also feel that it is unrealistic to believe that peace talks are possible at this time. The trust deficit is too great and any realistic US facilitation remains a pipe dream until the presidential elections run their course. It must also be recognised that the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah displays little interest in engaging with Netanyahu. This is a tragedy: two peoples' futures are being mortgaged as the costs of inaction build.

But as I write this piece it seems to me that we are allowing the real and frightening existential threat of a nuclear Iran to crowd out the compelling requirement that we advance the agenda of peace. If we do not, Israel will gradually become isolated. Consider the traction that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, whose constituents spew out antisemitic propaganda, has achieved with the Trade Union movement, and the branding of Israel last year as a "pariah state" by Tower Hamlets council.

Once this label has stuck, it is impossible to remove from the discourse around Israel, no matter how pernicious and false our enemies' claims are. Israel has always enjoyed most support when it is moving forward on peace; and this is what Israel must do now. So, if talks on a comprehensive settlement are impossible, then, as many have asked, why not try something else?

Firstly, instead of being thwarted by the lack of trust, try and build it. Some of those close to the process, and sympathetic to Israel concerns, have suggested that Israel's cabinet could initiate direct meetings with the cabinet of Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. Not to talk about "peace" but to discuss issues of mutual interest such as water, energy, infrastructure, transport, environment and economic co-operation. Trust is built by interaction, mutual understanding and collaboration. It takes time but, if there is movement towards that goal, more time to achieve it is created.

Secondly, why not talk separately about the various elements of a deal and resist the temptation to interlink agreement in one area with another. Seek solutions discreetly and then package them together when there is sufficient trust to achieve a comprehensive solution.

The borders of Israel and Palestine can't be far from agreement. Israel's security needs matched against the requirements of a sovereign Palestine cannot be far from rational resolution. However, the complexities of the final status of Jerusalem cannot and should not be minimised, nor for that matter should our rights to our ancient capital where we enthroned our Kings and built our Temple.

T hirdly, the PA should immediately halt its "unilateral declaration of Independence" activities and, rather, concentrate its energies on preparing its people for peace with a permanent state of Israel - the nation state of the Jewish people. Something that no Palestinian leadership has previously had the courage to do. Here, I guess "power" must speak truth to the "people" and finally confront the fact that holding on to the "right of return" is an obstacle to peace. The Palestinian refugees may have legitimate grievances but these cannot be resolved in the state of Israel.

Fourthly, Israel should demonstratively prepare the ground for the relocation of those "settlers" who do not live in the settlement blocs that are ultimately incorporated into Israel. A meaningful financial package to incentivise resettlement in Israel should be put in place now.

This, together with a major programme of housing construction in the Galil and Negev, would boost Israel's economy, with investment in and strengthening of these vital regions and signal Israel's strategic intentions.

Momentum can be re-established and while this happens we in the Jewish diaspora will still have our role to play. The American Jewish community must nurture the "special relationship" between their country and Israel because it may well be called upon quite soon.

We in the United Kingdom, the nexus of the BDS movement and so-called hub of the assault upon Israel's legitimacy, must remain steadfast supporters and advocates of Israel's legitimate rights as the nation state of the Jewish people.

We must fight Israel's enemies in the knowledge that, as we do so, Israel pursues peace in practical and pragmatic ways. We can use that momentum to rebuild coalitions of support for our beloved land. With momentum, progress is possible and once again, in the eyes of the world, Israel will be the party with the plan, the player promoting peace. Momentum will always trump despair.

Mick Davis is UJIA chairman

Last updated: 11:12am, April 6 2012