Britain's political hopefuls blast Israel boycott as election nears

Britain's political hopefuls blast Israel boycott as election nears
Comment: The Israel lobby in the UK is just as strong as elsewhere in the world, its influence just as pervasive and its electoral donations just as desirable.
5 min read
05 May, 2015
The campaign to boycott Israel is growing in momentum [Anadolu]

In the run-up to the UK general election, leaders of the two main political parties here have pledged to reject Israel boycott campaigns after the Board of Deputies of British Jews requested the guarantee.

Meanwhile, hundreds of potential MPs have declared support for Israel and opposition to boycotts, after "We Believe In Israel", a side-project of the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre (Bicom), canvassed prospective parliamentary candidates.

The commitments demonstrate the influence of extra-parliamentary Israel lobby groups, which act as a compliment to and often collaborate with "Friends of Israel" groups in the major parties that operate within Westminster.

'Resist boycotts'

David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg each recorded videos for the Board of Deputies' website discussing the "ten commitments" outlined in the Board's "Jewish Manifesto", which it asked potential leaders to sign up to.

Most of the pledges it contains deal with protecting Jewish practices such as shechita and circumcision, celebrating Jewish culture and heritage, supporting Holocaust remembrance projects and opposing all forms of hate crime.

But the sixth point calls explicitly for politicians to "resist boycotts that divide communities" - a clear reference to the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Although small, the existence of groups like J-Big (Jews for Boycotting Israel Goods), shows that the issue divides the Jewish community itself. But despite this, leaders of both main parties have signalled their assent.

     We believe in Israel's right to defend itself and we will always oppose boycotts.
 - David Cameron

"We believe in Israel's right to defend itself and we will always oppose boycotts," said David Cameron.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "I utterly oppose boycotts of Israel... I also will reject any attempt to delegitimise the state of Israel."

Nick Clegg's short video did not contain any clear reference to opposing boycotts, but it is unlikely that this was an especially meaningful omission. The Board's anti-BDS request, however, is very telling. It demonstrates just how worried Israel's supporters are about the increasingly widespread BDS movement.

Growing movement

Intense civil society activity, especially in trade unions and on university campuses, to advance the BDS campaign in solidarity with Palestinians, has led to major breakthroughs.

In Februrary, a university-wide referendum at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) saw 73 percent of students, academics and non-academic staff support a full academic boycott of Israel.

In the wake of this, the Board recently dispatched two representatives, Jonathan Arkush and Sophie Dunoff, to meet SOAS Vice Chancellor Paul Webley - though precisely what was said at the meeting remains unclear.

But beyond universities, BDS has also started to have an impact on the mainstream. Last month, Natalie Bennett said her Green Party supported the boycott of Israel and while the Green presence at Westminster is marginal, this was nonetheless significant.

Because of such moves, the backlash against the boycott has also spread to the political class, hence the Board eliciting these high-level condemnations from Cameron and Miliband.

Meanwhile, the pro-Israel group "We Believe In Israel", which in March this year organised a conference boasting speeches from Labour's Michael Dugher and arch-Tory Michael Gove, has been canvassing hundreds of potential MPs.

Notably, of the 159 candidates it recently classified as responding positively, almost 60 percent come from right-wing parties, including the Conservatives, the DUP and Christian People's Alliance. The xenophobic UK Independence Party (Ukip) makes up 20 percent of its pro-Israel list.

Its "Fairness for Israel charter" - first produced by North West Friends of Israel - says "boycotts against Israel in any sphere must be opposed". Among the reasons it gives are that boycotts "do nothing to help the peace process", "damage the livelihood of Palestinians" and "are opposed by the president of the Palestinian Authority".

     The difficulty for anti-BDS campaigns is that they offer little or no substantial framework for action.

Framework for action

While conveniently ignoring the fact that 170 Palestinian civil society organisations endorsed the call for BDS, and overlooking the damage done to Palestinian livelihoods - and lives - by Israel's ongoing occupation and ethnic cleansing, this argument also reaches a major stumbling block when it comes to the so-called "peace process".

The difficulty for anti-BDS campaigns is that they offer little or no substantial framework for action.

The "Fairness for Israel charter" and the Board's "Jewish Manifesto" both declare support for a two-state solution. But the former, while using apparent damage to their livelihoods to argue against boycotts, shows no concern for actually promoting Palestinian rights.

The Board's recently issued anti-BDS report, A Better Way than Boycotts fares little better. It chiefly offers up tired arguments against the boycott and throws in a sprinkling of superficial "co-existence" projects, which fail to address longstanding institutional and legal discrimination against Palestinians within Israel, let alone the colonisation of the West Bank, siege of Gaza or refugee rights.

Notably, in 2011, a vote at the Board saw its Deputies reject a call for the two-state solution. Combined with its unwillingness to criticise or put pressure on any Israeli government - even after Netanyahu explicitly promised that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch - this strongly suggests that, in practice, Israel's most vocal supporters in the UK are strident defenders of the status quo.

While this status quo remains intolerable for Palestinians, the boycott movement will continue to grow from the grassroots, despite the efforts of the pro-Israel network and regardless of disapproval amid the political elite.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.