Before Sanctioning – Can We Talk?

I often disagree with the American policy, especially toward the Middle East. Sometimes, I believe the American administration acts counter to its own interests, as well as to Israeli interests. For that reason, I am constantly criticizing American policy decisions.

Nonetheless, I have never stopped my intellectual efforts to comprehend the drivers behind the American policy. I have never lost my trust in American commitment to Israel, nor have I ever doubted whether I would stand next to the American people when they face danger.

However, there is a disturbing trend in America – an increasing advocacy for the boycott of Israel under various circumstances. This worrisome trend may jeopardize both American and Israeli interests, while hindering the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Shibley Telhami, 27 percent of the respondents said that the United States should exercise economic sanction against Israel in response to settlement construction. Ten percent support even more serious actions.

A recent example of a more ambitious sanctions policy is the American Anthropological Association’s resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions for what the group claims to be “Israel’s maintenance of a settler colonial regime.This initiative follows Professor Steven Levitsky and Professor Glen Weyl’s joint opinion column advocating the sanctioning of, and divestment from, the Israeli economy until Israel solves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These three examples demonstrate how slippery the “sanctions slope” can be. Once sanctioning Israel is legitimatized, anti-Israeli movements and individuals will try to use sanctions to compel Israel to act against its will and interests, not merely to prevent future Israeli construction. These extremist forces will be surely satisfied if the moderate Americans do their job of establishing legitimacy for the idea of boycotting America’s ally.

This development could seriously risk the special strategic relationship between the countries, as Israelis see their closest allies assist Israel’s adversaries, even unintentionally. Presumably, endangering the alliance would be justified by the prospects of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bringing peace between the two peoples. However, sanctioning Israel’s economy is not likely to yield this result. In reality, the results will be exactly the opposite.

The Israeli public does not maintain the status quo in the West Bank because it is attractive to do so. On a daily basis, Israelis pay the price of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts with blood. Israeli polls consistently demonstrate a yearning for peace and dissatisfaction with the current situation; as a result of the last elections in Israel, most Israeli Knesset Members support the Two-State Solution. But based on past experience, Israelis don’t see any feasible path to reach peace.

Serious negotiations with Yasser Arafat in 2000 resulted in the Second Intifada.  Israeli Prime Minister Olmert was determined in 2008 to put an end to the conflict, but failed to convince Mahmoud Abbas to go along.

Israel has tried unilateral steps, similar to the ones encouraged by some of the sanction advocates. But Israelis remember vividly that after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Hamas took full control of Gaza. Israeli citizens soon found themselves under a threat of thousands of rockets launched against some of Israel’s largest cities.

Since then, new security threats have developed from Lebanese Hezbollah and the Islamic State on the northern border, Hamas and radical Islamic groups in the south — and above all, the potential existential threat of Iran’s nuclear program. Given this new regional reality, and in the absence of compelling alternatives to current Israeli policy in the West Bank, most of the Israeli public prefers to maintain the status quo and avoid risky ventures.

One can agree or disagree with the Israeli assessment, but even Israel’s critics should recognize that if Israeli misgivings are mainly about the security of its citizens, threats to its economy will not mitigate these concerns and instead will increase them. And if Israel experiences a predicament, like any other country, it is not going to be more risk-prone; it will instead hold steadfastly to its security interests.

The big winners in this reality will be the extremist forces in Israeli society, not the moderate ones. Those who wish to promote a peaceful solution will lose influence over Israeli public.

It is equally false to assume that harming Israel through sanctions will instigate the Palestinian leadership to make the concessions it has refused to make in the past. Prudent Palestinian negotiators instead will harden their line, hoping that Israel capitulates to the international pressure. When both parties are expected to entrench, the prospects for peace will be much lower even than they are today.

So, what should be done?

Those who support the “Two State Solution” believe Israelis and Palestinians should talk through their mutual concerns and negotiate a peace agreement that will end the animosity between the peoples and stop the violence. But when approaching Israel — ostensibly their ally — some Americans opt for sanctions rather than the same open dialogue they are pushing Israel to engage in with its adversary.

Those who support the “Two State Solution” should condemn the backwards sanctions approach and embrace their own demand of Israel — initiating a dialogue of their own with the Israeli public. American-Israeli joint intellectual efforts are the only course toward new innovative alternatives that can pave the road for a real peace, while not jeopardizing either American or Israeli interests.

Editor’s note: Avner Golov is a Harry S. Truman Scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, a researcher at the Center for New American Security and a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.