How the ‘pariah state’ conquered the hi-tech world

This week, an American friend visited who had been in Israel for the elections. A veteran peace activist and trade unionist, she was here to talk to fellow liberal supporters of Israel about the boycott movement and how to fight it. Like others working in this troubled arena, my friend knows that Britain stands at the epicentre of an international campaign of delegitimisation. And yet, as she travelled between New York, London and Tel Aviv, she noticed something odd. The business lounges were buzzing with excited hi-tech entrepreneurs from the three countries, talking deals.

There is something distinctly odd about the way that Israel, this supposed international pariah state, is at the same time, “start-up nation” and held up as a model for hi-tech businesses around the world. The UK ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, has worked hard to establish a tech-hub in Tel Aviv, and the Labour Party front bench is making a point of learning from Israeli best practice.

But at home the boycott movement has been able to claim some high-profile victories, such as the closure of the Ahava cosmetics store in Covent Garden. As we report here, the Israeli company EcoStream may yet be forced to close its store in Brighton if increasingly violent demonstrations continue.

How has this bizarre state of affairs come to pass? Opponents of Israel might argue that it is entirely understandable that the UK political elite would wish to promote UK-Israel business, while grass-roots campaigners target those companies implicated in the oppression of Palestinian people.

Supporters of Israel need to recognise that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has been canny in the targets it has chosen to maximise public consumer support on the ground.

Activists have focused on the fact that Ahava’s factory is over the Green Line at Kibbutz Kfar Shalem. They have used similar arguments about EcoStream, which has a manufacturing plant at the settlement of Mishor Adumim. The PSC also urges people not to take holidays in Israel and it would be interesting to see how much public support it would gain from boycotting popular low-cost airlines such as EasyJet, which fly to Tel Aviv.

But there is a reason for targeting Ahava and EcoStream: the argument that these companies promote the occupation is a persuasive one.

The talk of those hi-tech entrepreneurs in the business lounges may not often turn to boycotts. But Mr Gould has already made his views clear about the increasingly negative image of Israel in mainstream political discourse in the UK. His Israeli counterpart in the UK, Daniel Taub, has made it his personal mission to engage with the British left precisely because of the role this country plays in promoting delegitimisation.

Those who feel they can be complacent about the success of the UK-Israel trading partnership should ask themselves why there is no joint hi-tech hub in this country. They might also ask why there is not more high-profile Israeli investment in East London’s Tech City. And what would happen, if there were.

Last updated: 4:45pm, February 7 2013