Michael Desch argues in the new issue that boycott, divestment and sanction efforts aimed at Israel are unlikely to succeed. Indeed, these efforts strike me as a misguided and counterproductive in a few ways. These mechanisms are very rarely effective, and they also punish the population for decisions and policies that many or most of them may not actually support. Even if a majority voted for the government perpetuating the policies, it is hard to argue that they therefore “brought it on themselves” (never mind that this is what many “pro-Israel” commentators said in defense of the bombardment of Gaza). These measures represent a form of collective punishment that is both likely to backfire and wrong, and this is all the more clear when the reason for the boycotts and sanctions is to protest the target government’s collective mistreatment of an entire people. To the extent that these measures succeed in isolating a government, they allow that government to use international hostility as a bludgeon against its domestic critics and they make it easier to rally the population in support of the very policies that the boycotts and sanctions are targeting. Of course, this applies just as well and perhaps better to authoritarian governments that are less responsive and less accountable to their populations.
To the extent that boycotts, divestment and sanctions successfully cut off the people imposing them from the country they are targeting, all that this does is open the field to other investors and competitors. It deprives the boycott and divestment participants of whatever influence they might have had, and it will tend to make the target government even less responsive to the demands of the supporters of the boycott. BDS movements might work if the country being targeted were entirely dependent on one or a few other countries, but every remotely modern economy is diversified enough and connected to so many other so others that any company or institution’s decision to divest from a targeted state simply becomes a buying opportunity for its competitors overseas. Even if a large number of American and European firms could be pressured into supporting such a movement, which I very much doubt they could, there would be Indian, Chinese and other firms lining up to take advantage of Western withdrawals from the Israeli market. The same would hold true at the state level. As unlikely as U.S. and EU sanctions are, other major and rising powers would readily take advantage of them if they ever happened. If Western governments are going to be able to change Israeli policies in the territories, which seems less likely all the time, it would have to be through using what leverage they have rather than depriving themselves of influence through imposing morally-satisfying, useless sanctions.
It has become more common and acceptable to make comparisons between Israel and South Africa, but the more one thinks about this comparison the more misleading it is. As Desch points out, the demographic balance between the rulers and the ruled is significantly different. Should the Palestinian population grow to be two or three times the size of the Israeli Jewish population, the perpetuation of the occupation may become as untenable for Israel as the Nationalist government ultimately realized apartheid was for them. Another important difference that I don’t see mentioned very much in any of these discussions is that South Africa’s extensive system of segregation was a system imposed inside its own internationally-recognized borders. The maintenance of apartheid was hardly peaceful, but that system did not involve a prolonged military occupation of land outside the country’s borders punctuated by the occasional air strike or bombardment of civilian centers. The political objectives of resistance groups are also significantly different: most Palestinians want statehood and independence, not majority rule in a binational state. This should theoretically be easier to grant, but which is evidently no less difficult politically to realize because of the presence of settlers in the West Bank and disagreement over dividing Jerusalem.