Friday December 19, 2014
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19.12.2014
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Prof. Efraim Inbar

The boycott mirage

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is threatening Israel with economic embargoes unless Jerusalem agrees to an American-drafted framework agreement with the Palestinians. While the merits of the current American diplomatic initiative are debatable, raising the possibility of a global refraining from economic interactions with Israel only feeds the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign waged by Israel's enemies. Such a scenario, however, is very remote.

So far, BDS has not achieved much success; it constitutes a bearable nuisance. With the exception of isolated cases, Israeli exports are well received all over the world, particularly if they are competitive in quality and price. Due to wise economic policies gradually distancing Israel from its socialist past, the Jewish state has adapted well to a globalized economy. Israel has found ways to penetrate important markets and Israeli products are imported even by Arab states. Moreover, some Israeli-made products have unique qualities which make them indispensable. Israeli high-tech components have become part of the standard equipment of many global brands. Most Israeli businessmen hardly meet obstacles that are connected to political animosity toward Israel.

Numerous past failures of American diplomacy to bring peace in the Middle East have not created long-term adverse conditions for Israel, even if Israel was partly blamed for the lack of American success. Typical American optimism will eventually produce additional attempts at mediation. The linkage between American diplomatic efforts and the fate of Israeli economy is tenuous at best. The Israeli economy has experienced remarkable growth in the last two decades, mostly the result of the liberalization of its economy rather than auspicious political circumstances. Moreover, a survey of the international scene also indicates that the BDS impact is unlikely to change.

The U.S. is the number one export country for Israel. Attempts to boycott Israeli products are unlikely to be successful in America. The American public support for Israel has remained stable for the past two decades at over 60 percent. A variety of legislative steps have already been adopted to prevent a boycott of Israeli products or institutions. Even the current administration, which has been more than once at loggerheads with Israel on Middle East issues, firmly states its opposition to BDS.

Several Western European states, prime recipients of Israel's exports, are indeed displaying a growing anti-Israel bias, despite good bilateral relations. Many Europeans have lost the shame of being anti-Semitic as the Holocaust memories fade away. Therefore, boycotts of Israeli products are conceivable.

Yet, as the euro crisis lingers, the purchase power of European countries is in decline. Its aging population is another factor in the decline of the Old Continent. Nevertheless, even in Europe there are strong pockets of pro-Israeli sentiments. The EU itself has announced that it has no plans whatsoever to boycott the Israeli economy. Israeli products originating beyond the Green Line are a different story, but only a small part of the Israeli economic activity is taking place in the settlements.

Israeli exports are gradually, albeit too slowly, being redirected to Asian markets. The future is in Asia. The large Chinese and Indian economies are growing fast, as are those known as the "Asian Tigers." The Asians are business-like and do not carry anti-Semitic historic baggage. Moreover, Israel is generally viewed in Asia as a successful country and a model to be emulated. This is true even in Central Asian states whose populations are largely Muslim.

At the same time, the political clout of the Arab world that is considered a natural ally of the Palestinians is decreasing. The Arab world is in the midst of a deep political and socio-economic crisis, full of failed states such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Egypt, the most important Arab state, faces tremendous domestic challenges and is allied with Israel against Islamic radicalism. Saudi Arabia is more concerned with the rise of Iran than the Palestinian issue, as is most of the Sunni world. Finally, the growing energy independence of the U.S. diminishes Arab leverage. Israel has overcome the boycott of the relatively stronger Arab world, and the BDS movement's attempts to harm the Israeli economy are unlikely to produce a different outcome.

Indeed, it takes a lot of imagination to see a concerted international effort to boycott the Jewish state. If Israel continues to make products with a clear qualitative edge at competitive prices, there will be many to buy them.

Kerry is simply echoing the arguments of the Israeli Left, which claims that an agreement with the Palestinians is the only way to escape international isolation. Moreover, irresponsible elements of the Israeli Left are asking for foreign pressure on Israel, realizing that they have no chance to change Israeli policies by the ballot box. The electoral decline of the Israeli Left makes it more desperate and less democratic when reaching the conclusion that "Israel has to be saved from itself" by the international community.

Fortunately, Israel is not internationally isolated and most of the world does not care enough about the Palestinians to sacrifice the benefits of good bilateral relations with Israel. Israel has the leeway to decide what is good for itself.

Professor Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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