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Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS): an important part of the dialogue process

By Annabel McGoldrick - posted Tuesday, 31 March 2015


“Why pick on Israel, when it’s the only democracy in the Middle East?!” It’s one of the most common objections to the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, started ten years ago by a coalition of Palestinian civil society groups. It overlooks the many structural obstacles to any actual influence, over important policy questions in Israel, for non-Jewish voters or their elected representatives. And it became more difficult to sustain during  the recent election which confirmed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for another term in office. In Washington, President Obama told Huffington Post that the reputation of Israeli democracy had been “eroded” by Netanyahu’s racist scaremongering, his election-day statement that “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations”.

Another card the Likud leader played in the final round of electioneering was to disavow any possibility of a Palestinian state being created by agreement with Israel. And here, Obama’s words may be much more portentous. In a phone conversation the two had following the count, the President said he indicated to Netanyahu that “it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible”. Netanyahu has since attempted to row back, but the White House is making it clear that the damage cannot be so easily undone.

Negotiations, in the US-sponsored ‘peace process’, were supposed to resolve the conflict, and have been cited many times as a reason why Washington invariably blocks any resolution critical of Israel at the UN Security Council: it will make negotiations “more difficult”. The political saleability of this line has depended on – as Obama put it – sustaining the belief that such negotiations are possible. Now Netanyahu has declared that they are not, time is running out. As Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry put it during the last unsuccessful American-led attempt to broker dialogue, Israel risks being seen as an “apartheid state”, which can only lead to “more boycotts”.

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Everyone can agree that, ultimately, dialogue will be needed if the people of Israel and Palestine are to move forward in peace with justice. And that dialogue will have to involve both Israelis and Palestinians, along with – no doubt – international actors. It has failed up to now because US diplomatic protection and military funding, together with a reluctance by other countries to push the issues of Israel’s serial breaches of international law, has sent an implicit message that the Occupation, settlements and militarism are something the world can live with. 

This deadly combination amounts to collusion with bullying by Israel; which in turn encourages extremist elements among the Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza responsible for firing rockets, an indisriminate weapon whose use I also deplore, while it should not be seen as in any way equivalent to the massive military onslaught against them.

It is, above all, my long experience as a psychotherapist that convinces me that boycotts are not an alternative to dialogue but a necessary pre-requisite, at this point, to bringing about conditions where such dialogue could ultimately prove fruitful.

As a psychotherapist when I work with couples where one partner is violent I first name the violence, then set a boundary around the violent behaviour and will not proceed with therapy until the violence stops. To proceed with therapy whilst violence is happening would be tantamount to condoning such behaviour.

Consider for a moment the thinking of abusive men – men whose thinking, I believe, has direct parallels with powerbrokers and military decision makers in Israel: "The first challenge with an abusive man is to motivate him to work on himself. Because he becomes attached to the many rewards that his controlling and intimidating behaviors bring him, he is highly reluctant to make significant changes in his way of operating in a relationship,” writes psychologist Lundy Bancroft, who runs programs for abusive men. Is there are parallel with Israel becoming attached to the rewards of funding and support from the USA, support and funding that comes with no consequences for Israel’s violence against the Palestinians or regular seizure of land? So there is an equivalent reluctance amongst the power brokers of Israel to ameliorate their violent responses. Bancroft goes on to suggest how to challenge such reluctance:

This reluctance cannot be overcome through gentle persuasion, pleading, or cajoling by the woman. I am sorry to say that I have never once seen such approaches succeed. The men who make significant progress in my program are the ones who know that their partners will definitely leave them unless they change, and the ones on probation who have a tough probation officer who demands that they really confront abusiveness. In other words, the initial impetus to change is always extrinsic rather than self-motivated.

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I believe BDS is capable of contributing to the extrinsic impetus to challenge Israel’s direct, structural and cultural violence towards the Palestinians. That includes the repeated bombardments of Gaza, which have killed thousands of civilians; the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and the routine dehumanisation of Palestinians in Israeli culture – which Netanyahu invoked with his inflammatory comments. By supporting BDS we join a movement that says we will not work with the state of Israel until the violence and the occupation ends.

Just as the therapist setting a boundary around a violent man’s behaviour empowers a woman in a violent relationship, that the third party will not tolerate the violence, she can then trust the process.

 To me, quietism about Israel’s illegal occupation and endless violence is tantamount to endorsing the behaviour of the abuser.

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About the Author

Dr Annabel McGoldrick is an academic, advocate, activist, peace journalist and psychotherapist. She is a part-time lecturer at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, and a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

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