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Normalization or sanctions?

Thursday 21 May 2009, by Michel Warshawski

Israel is not a normal state. Israel is a colonial settlers’ state, built on the ruins of Palestine and the dispossession of its people. This is why, for several decades, the Arab world – and many other countries in Africa and Asia – refused to recognize it and to maintain normal diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with Israel. Throughout the sixties and the seventies, normalization was the main aspiration of the Israeli leaders, i.e. to be accepted by its Arab neighbors as a legitimate state, and to have normal relationship with them. The continuous aggressive policy towards the Arab countries (1956, 1967, 1970, 1975) made it impossible for the pro-American Arab regimes to normalize relations with Israel, even when they expressed their readiness to do so, like Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1955 and later on in 1970 (under the mediation of Nahum Goldman, chairman of the World Jewish Congress).

Egypt President Anwar Sadat was the first Arab leader to break the siege on the state of Israel, and to call for normalization with it. In a dramatic move, he flew to Israel (1977) and addressed the Knesset with an un-ambiguous offer of normalization between the two states. Sadat’s initiative was soon followed by diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. Sadat’s recognition of Israel was perceived throughout the entire Arab world, as a treason, and in October 1981 he was assassinated.

The second major move in terms of normalization was the "mutual recognition" between the PLO and Israel, known as the Washington Declaration of Principles (September 1993). To a large extend, this recognition was even more far-reaching than the Egyptian one, because it was the direct victims of the Zionist colonization who now recognized the state of Israel. It paved the way for further steps of normalization: in 1995, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan recognized the state of Israel and opened an embassy in Tel Aviv, followed by Morocco, Tunisia and some Gulf countries, though without formal diplomatic relations.

The Israeli reaction to this historical development was, however, extremely disappointing for the Arab countries that made the choice of normalization: instead of starting a new page of regional cooperation based of peaceful coexistence with neighboring countries, the various Israeli governments made the choice of systematically violating the signed agreements with the Palestinians, to develop settlement activities in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, to demonstrate a total lack of good faith in the negotiation process with the Palestinian Authority, and worse even, to launch several military aggressions against Lebanon. Last but not least is the massacre of Gaza in January 2009.

In this sense, ending the anti-normalization campaign was not only a moral mistake but also a political failure: as a colonial-militarist state, Israel understands only pressure, and will stop its aggressive behavior only if obliged to do so. It is as simple as that.

The international campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel can provide an excellent framework to fight normalization with Israel.

The international campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel can provide an excellent framework to fight normalization with Israel.

Its primary advantage is that it concerns governments, corporations and citizens alike, and can be adapted and specified to concrete realities. From cutting diplomatic relations (like Venezuela and Bolivia after the Gaza massacre), to divestment of US Christian Churches from Israeli educational institutions, through public boycotts of Carmel and Jaffa Israeli fruits and vegetables; from boycott of Israeli basketball teams (obliging the competitions to be moved elsewhere or to be played without spectators), to the suspension of the upgrading of the Association Agreement between the EU and Israel, as decided by the European Union Council.

The state of Israel has put itself outside international law, outside the community of civilized countries, and as such must be treated as an outcast state. This has been the case for decades, but today no one can ignore it anymore. Boycotting normal relationships with Israel is a matter of international public health, as was the case toward South Africa before the fall of the apartheid regime. Boycott includes all fields: diplomatic, economic, financial, sports, culture, academic. The accumulated effect of a variety of BDS initiatives will be felt in Israel quicker than what many skeptical individuals are claiming, for Israel is extremely dependent on the world and its citizens sensitive to their public image abroad.

In the framework of the BDS campaign, a question has been raised: “what about organizations and individuals who clearly and openly oppose Israeli colonialism? Should there be exceptions in the boycott policy?” Concerning this issue, one can learn from the South African example: the African National Congress knew how to separate friends and friendly organizations from the rest, but without necessarily making it a stated policy, preferring a pragmatic, case-by-case, approach. One thing for sure: it would be wrong to come to the BDS campaign with the open demand “make a statement taking my organization out of the boycott list”. Let the campaign decide, through its own ways and rhythms, according to the needs of the campaign itself, its unity and internal coherence.

Though there is great importance to building an alliance and cooperation with the progressive Israelis who unconditionally endorse the BDS campaign and un-ambiguously reject normalization, it is up to the Palestinian (and Arab) national movement and the BDS campaign to decide if and when to publicly announce where the boycott policy will not apply. Having on many occasions been treated differently than other Israeli activists and organizations, I have learnt one important lesson: not everything has to be stated loud and clear, and sometimes constructive ambiguity can help make good politics.

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