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Isolating Israel

RAMALLAH – Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu certainly has reason to celebrate. He surprised nearly everyone by securing a decisive electoral victory, winning a third consecutive term in office after his right-wing Likud party gained a five-seat advantage in the Knesset over its main rival, the center-left Zionist Union.


But the celebration is likely to be short. The way Netanyahu finagled this outcome – renouncing his commitment to a two-state solution with Palestine and pledging to continue building settlements on occupied land – will almost certainly have serious political and diplomatic consequences for Israel.

In recent years, Netanyahu’s hardline stance has increasingly undermined Israel’s international credibility, while convincing the Palestinians living in the occupied territories that a genuine agreement with Israel is impossible. (Indeed, Palestinians showed little interest in the outcome of this election.)

Now that Netanyahu has intensified his right-wing rhetoric – and been rewarded with another term in power – the international movement to isolate Israel will only gain momentum. After all, support for direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine no longer makes sense, even for Israel’s main ally, the United States, because the assumptions underlying this approach have been demolished.

The first such assumption was that both parties accepted the two-state solution as the general basis for a compromise agreement. And, indeed, at Bar Ilan University in 2009, Netanyahu declared his willingness to accept the creation of a Palestinian state, on the condition that it be demilitarized and that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. This is no longer the case: two days before the election, Netanyahu explicitly vowed that his government would never allow Palestinian statehood.

The second key assumption underlying peace negotiations was that Israel, as a democratic country, would not want to rule another people through military occupation – thereby denying them their basic human right of self-determination – in perpetuity. But Netanyahu has now shown that Israel is a democracy only for its Jewish citizens, dismissing Israel’s Arab citizens, who comprise 20% of the country’s population, in blatantly racist terms. In the last hours of the election, Netanyahu called on Jewish Israelis to turn out, because “the Arabs are voting in droves.”

By eliminating the two assumptions critical to negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel’s current leadership – and, indirectly, the majority of Israelis – has destroyed the thin veneer of legitimacy that the international community had erected around a country that has been occupying another people for nearly five decades. The justification for not censoring Israel too harshly in international institutions or using boycotts to punish Israel for war crimes is no longer valid.

Obviously, some groups have long recognized the need for sterner measures. Most notably, in 2005 Palestinians living in the diaspora and others launched the international boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, with the goal of compelling Israel to stop violating international law, particularly with its settlement policies. The BDS movement has met significant resistance in many parts of the world, owing to the belief that its tactics are unnecessary and unhelpful. That will now change.

Similarly, the US opposed the move by Palestine – a United Nations-recognized non-member observer state – to join the International Criminal Court (ICC). Despite the lack of progress in peace negotiations, American leaders continued to believe in Israel’s democracy and willingness to pursue a two-state solution. That, too, will change.

Simply put, now that Israel’s leaders have renounced their commitment to a negotiated peace with Palestine, the international community can no longer justify the prevailing approach. Instead, it must live up to its professed values by isolating Israel politically and economically.

Moreover, world leaders should support Palestine’s efforts to resolve its conflicts with Israel through neutral international agencies like the ICC. And international forums like the United Nations Security Council must condemn Israel’s refusal to end its 47-year occupation, making it clear that the country will no longer benefit from a diplomatic double standard.

In 1990, when Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi forces to occupy Kuwait, claiming that he was retaking lost territory, the UN Security Council voted, based on chapter seven of the UN charter, to punish Iraq by imposing a strict financial and trade embargo. Likewise, when apartheid South Africa refused to provide its black majority with their fundamental human rights, the international community supported a major campaign of divestment and sanctions.

Today, Israel is relying on historical claims to occupy another people. Its government, which has revealed its racist underpinnings, is denying four million Palestinians basic rights, and even using military force against them. The international community needs to respond accordingly, intensifying boycotts, divestments, and sanctions, until Palestinians are allowed to live freely in a truly independent state alongside Israel.

Daoud Kuttab (@daoudkuttab), a former professor at Princeton University and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah, is a leading activist for media freedom in the Middle East.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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