Israeli government allocates millions to launch a campaign of PR and intelligence-gathering on those supporting boycott
LIA TARACHANSKY, PRODUCER: Nearly a day hasn’t gone by without the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel making headline news.
NEWS CLIP, CHANNEL 23 (VOICEOVER) (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The Finance Ministry warns of a world boycott of Israel that would hurt our standard of living and cost us thousands of jobs. On the other hand, some say Israel’s economy is strong enough to withstand a growing European boycott. So who’s right?
NEWS PRESENTER, CHANNEL 22 (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Leading business people appeal to Prime Minister Netanyahu and pressure him to reach an agreement [with the Palestinians]. They call on him to get to an agreement and warn of the financial boycott. We welcome businessman and CEO of L’Oréal Israel, Gad Propper.
Gad Propper, hello.
GAD PROPPER, L’ORÉAL ISRAEL (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Good evening.
PRESENTER: After all the press about a European boycott, as a CEO of an international company how much do you really feel this pressure to reach a political resolution?
PROPPER: The pressure from the outside is there. There are companies in Europe, in the U.S., in the Western world that talk about wanting to see peace in the Middle East.
TARACHANSKY: The movement, called BDS for short, is the latest and most organized call by Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israel, until its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza ends, the refugees and displaced are allowed to return, and the Palestinians inside Israel are granted equal rights to Jews.
The central founder of the movement is Omar Barghouti. This week, The Real News sat down with him in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
OMAR BARGHOUTI, FOUNDING MEMBER, PALESTINIAN CAMPAIGN FOR THE ACADEMIC AND CULTURAL BOYCOTT OF ISRAEL: We reached a qualitative leap, if you will. But it’s been–the signs have been piling up throughout the last couple of years. In December 2012, the ANC adopted the BDS call in its national conference.
Throughout 2013, we’ve had many smaller tipping points. Four academic associations in the U.S. adopted the academic boycott of Israel. The teachers union of Ireland did too. Many student councils across U.S. campuses adopted divestment from U.S. companies involved in the occupation.
TARACHANSKY: But all of these are mostly symbolic actions that basically make organizations that have very little financial influence on Israel take a stand. Now we’re seeing actual concrete financial impacts.
BARGHOUTI: Absolutely. I was moving to the 2014 era, when we’re starting to see real financial impact.
TARACHANSKY: Last month, the Netherlands’ largest pension fund management company has decided to withdraw its investments from Israel’s five largest banks, because they have branches in the West Bank and are involved in financing construction in the settlements. A few weeks earlier, the Dutch water company Vitens canceled a contract with Israel’s Mekorot water company for similar reasons.
BARGHOUTI: And then we saw the German government excluding settlement entities from scientific cooperation agreements with Israel. We saw the Norwegian pension fund, the largest in the world, excluding Israeli companies from its investments; the largest Danish bank; and so on. So, yes, we’re into a totally different era.
With the Dutch pension fund decision to take punitive measures against all Israeli banks involved in the occupied territories, this is very serious, because they’re adopting the logic that you should punish the criminal, not the crime. The settlements are the crime. The criminal is the state of Israel. And the criminal at the lower level are the banks involved in those crimes, in funding those crimes.
TARACHANSKY: It was exactly the blurring of the green line by boycott initiatives that got the Israeli business community anxious. Israel’s Channel 2 reported that in recent months the legal office of Daniel Reisner has become the main address of companies suffering from the boycott. Their leaders woke up one morning and discovered that to do business in Israel comes at a price, even if their headquarters sit in the heart of Tel Aviv. They’ve lost contracts, got into trouble with their parent companies abroad, and managers even received letters threatening the cancellation of investments, says Reisner.
Earlier this month, the Israeli prime minister announced he will summon a first-of-its-kind broad meeting of ministers to discuss strategy for how to tackle the boycott. At the moment, Israel’s only public strategy is a brand Israel PR campaign run by the Foreign Ministry. However, at the last minute the debate was postponed. But the prime minister tasked his cabinet to come up with ideas. Minister Naftali Bennett’s is simply to find new friends. If European and American markets will demand Israel stand by conditions of their own free trade agreements and respect international law as those now advocating boycott do, Israel will simply turn elsewhere.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): How should we cope with the boycott threats from Europe? Find alternatives in the world. Udi Segel, are [you] there?
UDI SEGEL (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Listen, there’s the European market, and it’s important. It’s our biggest business partner. And there’s a risk some of it is declining. Now Israel is making new contacts in search of new friends. So after our hug with Canada and wink to Australia, there is now a new group entitled Pacific Alliance–Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Chile.
TARACHANSKY: The Australian reports that Israel has about 40 trade offices, which Bennett is starting to divert from Western Europe towards Asia, with the Sweden office being replaced by one in Hong Kong and Finland’s by one in China.
Europe is Israel’s number-one export market.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Having failed to dislodge us with weapons, with armies, with terrorists, with rockets, with missiles, they now think that they’ll dislodge us with boycotts. Now, don’t take my word for it. The founders of the BDS movement make their goals perfectly clear. They want to see the end of the Jewish state. They’re quite explicit about it. And I think it’s important that the boycotters must be exposed for what they are: they’re classical anti-Semites.
TARACHANSKY: The Israeli Strategic Affairs minister recently asked the Israeli government for 100 million shekels to create a special unit that will deal specifically with the boycott. Now, he said that the work is only partially PR, but in fact most of it is intelligence.
BARGHOUTI: They have an extremely powerful army, a massive nuclear weapons arsenal. But they don’t know how to combat a nonviolent movement based on human rights. And BDS is such a movement that Israel is really paralyzed in confronting. Last June, 2013, Israel in fact announced that it has failed in its propaganda efforts to fight BDS. All the attempts to smear, intimidate, and bully have failed. So they shifted in June 2013 overall responsibility for fighting BDS from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. And now the Ministry of Strategic Affairs is asking for 100 million shekels to fight BDS, and they’re establishing all kinds of reconnaissance, all kind of intelligence units, to spy on Western organizations and Western individuals supporting the BDS movement without a peep from those supposed Western democracies.
TARACHANSKY: Another idea came from Minister of Science and Technology Daniel Hershkowitz, who created a special fund for academics who were refused grants abroad for boycott reasons. The fund offers a quarter of a million shekels for research. The sum is symbolic, as 40 percent of Israeli research depends on European funds, a total of roughly 3 billion shekels. But with recent successes of the BDS campaign, researchers are likely to lean more heavily on the Israeli Education Ministry for finance.
On February 10, the prime minister finally held a strategic meeting. But instead of inviting most of his ministers, the head of intelligence agencies, and members of the judiciary as the original debate intended, he stuck to three of his most hardline cabinet members: Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett, and Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz.
Recently a secretive report came out by the Foreign Ministry that said that about 30 percent of Israeli companies are going to suffer if the boycott continues. And they estimate that the economic damage overall will be about $20 billion.
BARGHOUTI: We’ve not read the report, but we’ve read some leaks in the media about it. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration, because Who Profits, which is an Israeli project that documents Israeli and international companies operating in the OPT, estimate about 80 percent of Israeli companies are involved somehow in the occupied Palestinian territory, whether the settlements, the wall, the infrastructure, or other aspects of the occupation. So I wouldn’t doubt that the figures will be drastic.
TARACHANSKY: Last month, Minister of Finance Yair Lapid told Israeli daily Ynet that his ministry has gone through all the various scenarios and determined that if the current situation with the boycott continues, it will hurt the pocket of every Israeli: “We are export-leaning, and export is dependent on our position in the world.”
Israel’s head negotiator with the Palestinians, Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, echoed such comments when she supported U.S. secretary of state’s warning that a failure to reach an agreement would lead to a boycott on steroids.
BARGHOUTI: Unlike South Africa during apartheid, Israel does not produce anything that the world cannot live without. They produce products and services that the world can buy elsewhere, usually at cheaper prices, including technological advances and so on you can get elsewhere. Israel does not have any unique position. Although it markets itself as unique, it’s really not. It’s very dependent on Western technology, especially U.S. technology. And we see a lot of the commercial relations with Israel are ideologically based, not just financial and economically based.
If they think BDS managed to grow in Western Europe, where support for Israel was once prevalent, they think we cannot have an effective BDS in India, Brazil, and other Global South countries, they are dead wrong.
NETANYAHU: We possess a great treasure. The capacity to innovate is a great treasure of profound economic value in today’s world. And that is something that is bigger than all these boycotters could possibly address, because people are coming here, the new powers, the old powers and the new powers, superpowers–Google, Yahoo! You’re not laughing. It’s not a laughing matter. It’s true.
TARACHANSKY: For The Real News, I’m Lia Tarachansky in Ramallah.