JERUSALEM — Suddenly, again, Israel is seeing new threats everywhere. The latest come not from rockets, the Israelis say, but from students armed with petitions and Palestinians seeking sanctions against the Israeli soccer team.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters here and in the United States are warning that Israel is unfairly beset on all sides, by old foes and new. Most worrisome of all, they say, are not armed militants but a campaign of “delegitimization” against the Jewish state.
Yesterday’s threat may have been a Hamas militant digging an attack tunnel across the Gaza Strip border. Today’s threat, according to the Israeli government, appears to be a college student in Britain with a petition who supports the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) movement against Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, who are approaching their 50th year of living under Israeli military occupation.
A symbolic but relatively toothless decision this month by the British National Union of Students to support the BDS movement was front-page news in Israel for days. Even more startling for Israelis were comments last week from Stéphane Richard, chief executive of the major French telecommunications company Orange, who said he would pull the company out of Israel “tomorrow morning” if he could, suggesting he supported the boycott movement. Richard later amended his remarks and said he had been misunderstood. He is visiting Israel this weekend to set the record straight, according to Israeli news reports.
The Orange affair was preceded by a Palestinian bid two weeks ago to have Israel suspended from FIFA, the world soccer organization, for the country’s treatment of Palestinian players. The measure was withdrawn in a last-minute compromise but not before garnering international headlines.
“We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the state of Israel, an international campaign to blacken its name,” Netanyahu warned his new cabinet last week, referring to the BDS movement. “It is not connected to our actions; it is connected to our very existence.”
Even greater threats are coming, Israelis say, including the looming Palestinian bid to have Israel formally investigated for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, once considered “the nuclear option” by the Palestinians and now increasingly a possibility. An ICC delegation is scheduled to arrive in Israel this month.
More troubling still for the new Israeli government is a resolution that may soon be offered by the French before the U.N. Security Council that would set parameters and deadlines for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said that the Palestinians, having been frustrated in their attempts to establish a sovereign state through U.S.-brokered talks, are now seeking to “internationalize” the conflict and have their demands met by isolating and angering Israel.
In an interview this week, Israel’s new deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, told The Washington Post that the Palestinian campaign against Israel was nothing less than “diplomatic terrorism.” Hotovely described the efforts as an “existential threat” to Israel.
“There is no danger of invasion by Arab armies — none,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said at a security conference here this week. “We have found a response to weapons of terror and to the rockets, even if it is not a total one,” Yaalon continued, referring to air defense systems, supplied by the United States, as well as military and intelligence operations against militant groups.
Instead, Yaalon and other top Israeli officials are ringing the alarm to warn their people of “delegitimization” efforts, specifically by diplomatic pressure against Israel in international bodies such as the United Nations.
At least six new Israeli government ministers, including Hotovely, are assigned portfolios to mount a response, including one minister tasked specifically with fighting the BDS movement. Last week, the billionaire casino magnate and pro-Israel GOP activist Sheldon Adelson brought Jewish donors to Las Vegas to pledge $20 million to counter BDS.
The feeling among Israelis that they are under siege is certainly not new, but the battle lines are shifting.
Israel may be finding itself more exposed for its treatment of Palestinians after Netanyahu declared, on the eve of his reelection in March, that there would never be an independent Palestinian state under his watch.
Even after Netanyahu sought to walk back his remarks, President Obama said he took the Israeli leader at his word. Secretary of State John F. Kerry had spent nine months leading fruitless talks to broker a peace deal that would create “two states for two peoples,” a goal of Democratic and Republican administrations for a generation.
Netanyahu has charged that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic at its core. BDS advocates deny that and say boycotts are a legitimate, nonviolent and accepted means of winning their goal of justice for Palestinians.
Michael B. Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said in an interview that the boycott movement may appear to outsiders as inept or harmless, but to Israelis — living in a small country with 6 million Jews and 2 million Arabs — the threat of isolation looms large.
“It is a strategic threat that aspires to be an existential threat,” Oren said. “It is not about getting a two-state solution. . . . It’s about taking us down.”
Yet fear of the boycott movement is controversial even here. Some Israelis say Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters abroad are hyping the threat for political gain, both within Israel and among pro-Israel supporters in the United States.
“There is a fight between us and the right, who say that everyone is against us because of anti-Semitism, because they hate us, and that BDS is against Israel’s legitimate right to exist,” said Michal Rozin, a member of parliament from the left-wing Meretz party. “We say that BDS is growing because of the occupation.”
Beyond bad public relations, economists say they have not yet discerned much impact from BDS, a conclusion supported by an Israeli parliament report earlier this year. The Israeli economy appears to be rock solid: Trade, travel and investment are growing; the gross domestic product rose 2.9 percent in 2014 despite a 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza; and unemployment is low, at 5.9 percent.
A couple of minor rock music acts have declined to play in Israel, but the Rolling Stones and Lady Gaga have come. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin hosted a meeting last month to highlight concerns among Israeli university presidents that BDS could limit their collaborations for Israeli researchers abroad. Yet while they said this was a concern, they did not point to any specific examples.
Even so, Netanyahu said it took all of Israel’s diplomatic pull to avoid being sanctioned by FIFA at its recent annual conference in Switzerland. If Israel had been barred from international play, it would have joined a very small club of countries to have been suspended by FIFA, including South Africa during the apartheid era.
Oren called the FIFA threat “the bomb that woke everyone up. Football touches a very sensitive Israeli nerve.”
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