As Israelis committed to the future of our country as the secure, democratic home of the Jewish people, we wish to underscore, expand and add perspective to a critical point J.J. Goldberg makes in his August 4th column about the anti-BDS bill now before the U.S. Congress.
The bill proposes to criminalize explicit boycotts of Israel. But Goldberg points out that while the debate about the bill has focused on whether or not the bill violates freedom of speech, a much more controversial issue embedded in it is its tacit recognition of settlements, contravening official US policy. And settlements have posed one of the most serious obstacles to efforts by successive U.S. administrations to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
As Goldberg notes, “The bill commits the United States for the first time to extending protection, including legal protection, to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.” The bill does that, Goldberg explains, by blurring the distinction between Israel and “territories under its control,” i.e. the occupied territories.
The significance of eroding this distinction cannot be overstated. It endangers the future of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state. It delegitimizes the entire Zionist enterprise. And it actually plays into the hands of BDS advocates.
Here’s how: If Israel includes the territories, it cannot be a democracy, because the approximate 2.5 million Palestinians residing in the West Bank have no civic rights, unlike their settler neighbors, who are Israeli citizens.
This concept cannot be stated enough times. No country that does not mandate full civic equality to millions of people can legitimately claim to be a democracy and have that claim accepted by the world’s democratic states.
That is exactly what BDS advocates point to when they assert that Israel is an apartheid state. And if Israel is defined as including the territories, as it is in this bill, they are correct.
Thus, the legitimacy of Israel hinges on the distinction between Israel proper, where Jews have a right for self-determination, and the territories, in which a Palestinian state should be established in order to fulfill the aspirations of the Palestinian people for freedom and dignity.
We believe that Zionism is a just movement, that the Jewish people have the right to a national homeland in Israel. The Zionist enterprise is undoubtedly legitimate, but only if it respects the rights of other people.
Two practical conclusions can be drawn from the above discussion. First, since Israel is legitimate but BDS tries to delegitimize Israel, BDS is a harmful endeavor and should be outlawed. Thus, a law against cooperation with BDS is important, but it should carefully demarcate the borders of Israel and not include any areas on which Israel itself has not claimed sovereignty. Such demarcation may include the major settlement blocs, which would become part of Israel in the framework of land swaps as part of a process leading to a two-state solution – a process Israel should initiate with independent steps.
The second practical conclusion relates to how the international community, for which the bill is intended, should actually treat the settlement enterprise. Though we are very critical of the policy of the current Israeli government, we believe that there should be absolutely no boycott that does not differentiate between Israel and the territories.
Moreover, Israelis reject any insinuation that Israel is illegitimate, and labeling it so creates a sense of victimhood and makes them close ranks around their government’s hardline policies. As Goldberg correctly notes, “Boycotting Israel is an attack on the state, nation, and people of Israel. Boycotting the settlements is something else: an attack on a specific Israeli government policy.”
Those members of Congress who believe they demonstrate support for Israel by protecting it from boycotts are in fact doing a disservice to Israel through the way the bill is currently phrased. The guiding principle must be to make a clear demarcation between Israel and the occupied territories. That principle should inform the actions of any person or entity who wishes Israel to be the democratic home for the Jewish people.
Ami Ayalon is a former director of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. Gilead Sher is the former Chief of Staff for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak who heads the Center for Applied Negotiations at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. Orni Petruschka is a high-tech entrepreneur in Israel. They are principals of the Israeli non-partisan organization Blue White Future.