Rebecca Vilkomerson thinks that BDS is both legitimate and effective

Posted: March 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 21 Comments »

Earlier this week, an Israeli security company named Hashmira has announced it will stop supplying equipment to the West Bank. Hashmira is owned by Danish giant G4S, which was under considerable pressure due to its projects in Israel. This was another success for the boycott campaign, which seems to gain momentum, especially when it targets activities directly involved in the occupation.

The Boycott is extremely controversial in Israel. While there is some tolerance, especially on the left, for the boycott of the settlements, supporting the BDS is a political taboo. Furthermore, a new Knesset bill would make it illegal for Israelis to support all kind of political boycotts against the occupation.

I would like to bring here things said by Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rebecca Vilkomerson during J Street’s panel on BDS. Rebecca makes some very good points, especially with regards to the nature of the boycott as a none-violent, grassroots action (Bernard Avishai, who also spoke at the J street Panel, makes the case against BDS here).

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I want to take a moment to make sure we all are clear about what BDS is.  BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It’s a Palestinian led, globally active, non-violent movement in support of equality and freedom for the Palestinian people.

As Kathleen mentioned, I lived in Israel from 2006 to 2009.  My husband and children are Israeli, so obviously I am deeply invested in what will happen in Israel.  I actually learned about BDS largely through Israeli activists and friends, who had increasingly come to support it, especially in the wake of the Gaza War. I find it to be the most hopeful strategy that we can engage in — a way to act on principles of equality and human dignity that I value as a Jew and as a human being.

In the last month or so, three events, in particular, have reinforced this for me.

1) The Palestine Papers revealed that the “peace process,” which has been going on for 19 years now, is bankrupt.  The U.S. is not an honest broker, Israel is not willing to compromise, and the PA is too weak to fight for Palestinian rights, willing to make enormous concessions –which still were not considered enough by Israel.  Throughout this almost 20 year process the settlements have grown enormously, creating de facto bantustans that make a two state solution hard to imagine.

2) The U.S. vetoed a resolution at the U.N. which was an exact reflection of its own foreign policy.  The U.S. is simply unwilling to use any of the many tools it has at its disposal to force Israel to stop violating international law, to stop violating human rights, and to stop violating U.S. policies.  Obama stood in Cairo and said that settlements must end—and yet he has proven that in this case he believes only in words, not action.
Frankly,  we need to be realistic about the current power dynamics.  The strategy of relying on governments –our government—to bring about change on its own has shown itself to be completely ineffective.

3) In contrast: the Arab uprisings. Many of us watched in awe as Egyptians took to the streets in their millions, to non-violently call for freedom, democracy, and dignity.  Now from Bahrain, to Libya, and Yemen, thousands more are doing the same.  Last night, Mona Eltahawy’s call for solidarity for Arab struggles for freedom and dignity got a standing ovation.  The Palestinian BDS movement is part and parcel of the Arab Spring sweeping the region, and deserves the same respect.

So on the one hand we have government-driven processes that have shown themselves to be corrupt and hypocritical, and on the other we have a movement rooted in civil society, in principles of non-violence, which draws on the long and noble history of BDS efforts against apartheid, for civil rights, for many other righteous struggles.  These are the tools of our heroes—Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez.

BDS is an opportunity for each of us, personally, to act on our values.  To express, directly, our support for freedom, democracy and dignity.   It can create—is creating—the pressure that will eventually be much more successful than current lobbying tactics have been to create a true change in U.S. foreign policy, to create the conditions for negotiations that are between equals.

I want to highlight just one company that is being targeted in a global boycott campaign as an illustration.
Veolia is a French company, one of the largest in the world, which manages transportation systems, waste systems, and water treatment around the world (including here in D.C., where it manages the bus lines).  It operates a land fill in the West Bank (using Palestinian land and resources to serve the settlements), runs bus service to the settlements on road 443, which was built on Palestinian land but is only open to Israelis, and had a contract to build and manage the light rail to connect West Jerusalem to the settlements around it, effectively annexing Palestinian territory.

Veolia has been the target of a boycott and divestment campaign worldwide , and as a result Veolia has lost literally billions of dollars in new contracts.  In June, 2009, Veolia announced that it was withdrawing from its contract to build the rail, though it is still managing its implementation, and continues to lose contracts because of it.

The campaign against Veolia is a great example of why BDS is so exciting and so effective:

It works.

It educates people about the way corporations are implicated in the settlement project and in building and expanding the infrastructure of occupation

It enables people to take action once they understand what is happening—Veolia is in local communities all over the country, collecting garbage, operating buses and trains, and all over the country people are organizing campaigns  in their own cities and campuses to build the pressure on Veolia to stop profiting from the Occupation.

This is just one example.  One of the strengths of the BDS movement is that it is both loose and broad, all sorts of campaigns and targets fit within it, depending upon local priorities and conditions.

BDS movement is inspired by a call that was put out by Palestinian civil society in 2005, but it is a very diverse movement of acts of nonviolent resistance occurring every day in ways big and small.

Some just do it quietly by bypassing settlement goods at the store-which is common in Israel among my friends and family, and I would guess in this room. Israeli artists boycott performances in Ariel, and U.S. artists, like Steven Sondheim, Tony Kushner, and Mandy Patinkin, support them. Some picket in front of stores, or ask artists not to play in Israel, or like JVP, focus only on companies that profit from the Occupation.

We have groups in Israel like Boycott from Within, that have been supporting the full Palestinian call, and groups like Peace Now that ask supporters not to invest in the occupied territories.. Here in the U.S., Meretz USA, recently put out a statement supporting BDS in the occupied territories.

It really varies and not everyone agrees on every campaign. But we all have in common a belief that Israel must abide by international law, must be a true democracy for all of its citizens, and cannot continue to subjugate another people.  That stand for democracy and freedom is what motivates the BDS movement, just as it motivated the movement for civil rights in the U.S. in the 1960s, and what we are seeing today in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

One of the beautiful things about watching those movements unfold has been watching people under dictatorial regimes who suddenly found the courage to take their governments, and their lives, back.  The BDS movement strives to fulfill these same basic human needs and in the same spirit of non-violence.  After years violent attacks on civilians that were rightfully condemned, how could we not respect and encourage these non-violent means, that bring together Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists in common cause?

It is very encouraging to have this conversation in a Jewish space. It’s great that J Street has rejected the attempts of right wing groups to split progressive Jews from one another, and is not following the lead of groups like Hillel (and Ameinu, if I want to be brutal!), that are creating political litmus tests for inclusion in the Jewish community. Its exciting to be able to sit together and have this discussion about tactics—there should be room for all of our approaches.

But is also of utmost importance to recognize that to have this conversation only in this space is not enough.  Many of us in this room have been to Bilin or Sheikh Jarrah.  These places are inspiring, because though led by Palestinians, as is appropriate since it is the Palestinian’s struggle to be free, they are joint Palestinian-Israeli efforts. In those places you can imagine a future in Palestine and Israel where all people are free to be full citizens, and where life is richer for everyone for it.

One of the strengths of BDS is that it actually requires conversation and coordination. So as a next step, I would put out a plea and a challenge that we not have this conversation only among Jews, but respect the agency of Palestinians in this struggle.  They are the ones most affected, they are the initiators of the call, and they need to be able to represent themselves in this debate.

More on BDS:

Roi Maor: BDS is ineffective.

Joseph Dana and Max Blumenthal: BDS targets the right group in Israeli society.

Video of the BDS debate in Princton. Debating: Max Blumenthal, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Dan May, Daniel May.


Please, no more peace plans

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments »

The Israeli leadership wants to hold on to the status-quo, the Palestinian leadership is split, and the US discovers the limits of its power. Under these circumstances, the problem is not the lack of solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the absence of political forces that could implement them. A response to Bernard Avishai

Olmert, Abbas and Bush at the opening of the Annapolis talks (U.S. Navy photo by Gin Kai)

Olmert, Abbas and Bush at the opening of the Annapolis talks (U.S. Navy photo by Gin Kai)

Some 20 years ago, just before I started my mandatory service in the IDF, I remember reading “No Trumpets, No Drums” by Sari Nusseibeh & Mark Heller. The Israeli and Palestinian authors of the book conducted negotiations for several months, leading to the outline of the two-state solution described in the book. At the time, the idea of a Palestinian state was still a taboo for most of the Israeli public, even in the Left, and I still remember going through the book and realizing that there might, after all, be a solution to what used to be called “the Palestinian problem.”

Reading Bernard Avishai’s excellent piece on the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas in this week’s edition of the New York Times Magazine, I couldn’t help remembering “No Trumpets, No Drums.” The similarities between the agreement Nusseibeh and Heller reached and the ideas discussed by the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian president were striking, only this time they didn’t bring any sense of hope with them.

Another memory: Recently, I attended a public peace conference hosted by an Israeli-Palestinian NGO. Between the formal debates, I had a few conversations with representatives of different peace groups. Over dinner, one of them told me of a peace plan he came up with. “It’s not that different from the Geneva Initiative,” he admitted, “only with a few modifications.” A businessman I met was working on establishing an Israeli-Palestinian civilian think tank. His goal: To come up with a plan for a two-state solution…

In recent years, I have also met plenty out-of-the-box thinkers: People proposing a formula for a Palestinian-Israeli confederation; those who dream of abolishing national borders in the Middle East; and even a guy who claims that the Palestinians are the lost Jewish tribes, and therefore, see no reason for the conflict. All we need, he told me, is to explain this to people.

In short, there is no shortage of solutions (and it’s not surprising the serious ones look quite similar). The more the situation on the ground deteriorates, the more plans people come up with. I guess it’s only natural, and I don’t want to dismiss this tendency altogether. Ideas are important. They show people that the current trends can change, and they can lead to political action. The problem, I think, is that in recent years, all these plans and ideas replaced politics, and therefore, became counter-productive.

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Many people looked at the failed Annapolis process as a missed opportunity, a version of the “generous offer” narrative used to describe the Camp David summit in 2000. Look how close the two sides are, these people say. If only the administration was more engaged we could have had an agreement. If only the war in Gaza didn’t break out. If only Ehud Olmert stayed in power.

But wasn’t the war evidence to the fact that it’s impossible to sign an agreement with only half the Palestinian Authority, and leave Gaza out of the process? And didn’t the result of the Israeli elections prove that the public prefers Netanyahu’s rejectionism to Kadima’s two-state platform? Couldn’t the failure to reach an agreement serve as proof that at least one of the parties – if not both – find the negotiation’s outcome impossible to live with, or simply impractical?

I believe that the problem is not the absence of a plan, but that of a leadership which is able to carry it out. Olmert went further than any Israeli leader, but he still didn’t come close to the minimum the Palestinians could have lived with (the reaction to the Palestine Papers reveals how far behind from its leadership was the Palestinian public). And while the Israeli PM was negotiating, Netanyahu and Lieberman warned of these “dangerous concessions” and made it clear that the next Israeli government would not see itself committed to the understandings between the lame-duck Prime Minister and the Palestinian President (when the crucial meetings between the two leaders took place, Olmert has already announced he would retire form his post due to corruption allegations, and that he wouldn’t run for re-election). It seems that the talks between Olmert and Abbas were closer in spirit to the Nusseibeh-Heller negotiations or to the talks that led to the Geneva Accord than to the Oslo process: full of good-will, but short on political authority that could back it up.

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How do we get out of this dead-end? Avishai thinks that the US should present its own peace plan, based on the points of agreement between Olmert and Abbas. He writes on his TPM blog:

The point is, an Obama plan should be presented first to (and coordinated in advance with) the EU, the Quartet, the leaders of the OECD, and congressional leaders for that matter. It should be declared consistent with Olmert’s offer and designed (as Olmert’s offer was) to be “in the spirit” of the Arab League Initiative of 2002. Its great victory would not be in (immediately) getting Israelis and Palestinians to yes, but in creating an international consensus which all sides, especially Netanyahu and Israeli leaders and journalists more generally, would have to contend with for the foreseeable future. Obama could make the plan concrete by, for example, offering to provide funding for the RAND Corporation’s ARC project, tying a Palestinian state together with a transportation corridor, and offering Israeli infrastructure companies the chance to participate.

In the NYT piece, Avishai explains:

It is hard to imagine Netanyahu resisting an Obama initiative should the president fully commit to an American package based on these talks and rally the E.U., Russia and the United Nations.

Is it so hard to imagine? Some described the moratorium deal offered by the Administration last autumn as the best ever for Israel, and yet, Netanyahu rejected it. And it wasn’t even about a full peace treaty, just 90 days of settlement freeze, a good-will move that would enable negotiations to move forward.

Right now, there is no political force in Israel which is able to carry out the evacuation of settlements necessary for a peace deal, or to sell the Jewish public the return of dozens to hundred of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Without those, there would be no peace. There could be some intermediate treaty or a unilateral withdrawal, but it won’t bring peace.

The current Israeli leadership can’t even agree on a peace plan that would hand the Palestinians 60 percent of the West Bank, as some ministers proposed. The Knesset has a block of 60-65 members that would never agree to the concessions offered by Ehud Barak in Camp David, let alone those negotiated by Olmert. That’s the reason for the absence of peace talks – there is nothing to discuss.

If we had learned something during President Obama’s first couple of years, it’s his administration’s limits in applying effective pressure on a determined rightwing Israeli government. The administration tried to play it tough, but Netanyahu called their bluff – and won. Many people in Israel and Palestine, including myself, were hoping for a better outcome, but I don’t think the administration is to blame, in spite of mistakes it made. The political circumstances are such that applying pressure on Jerusalem is simply too expensive, in terms of political currency. A president might lose a lot by confronting an Israeli PM, and gain very little. Perhaps that’s the reason that the last two presidents pushed their peace plan just as they were getting ready to leave the White House.

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So, what should the US do? In my opinion, the answer is not much, at least for the time being. As recent events taught us, there are limits to the ability to shape the Middle East’s politics from the Oval Office. The US should take a step back, and most importantly, let Jerusalem face the consequences of the occupation by gradually lifting the diplomatic shield it provides Israel with. It should be done in a smart enough way not to hurt the administration politically, but the message needs to be clear: If Israel continues to hold on to the West Bank, it will become more and more isolated. With time, this message would resonate with policy makers and with the Jewish public.

We could also hope that the Palestinians will be able to unite their government, so that when the opportunity presents itself, the leadership that negotiates the end of the occupation would enjoy a greater legitimacy than Abbas and Saeb Erekat did in 2008. Hamas has a veto power over agreements, just as the Israeli Right has. If these forces are not engaged with, there isn’t a plan in the world that would bring peace.