The Palestinian boycott is part of building a state.
I don't like boycotts. Israel suffered from a comprehensive Arab boycott prior to June 1967, when settlements and territories were not an issue. Israel is today targeted for academic and economic boycotts by elements in the West whose hostility toward it in many cases goes far beyond the West Bank, Jerusalem and the settlements issues.
On the other hand, I understand where the Palestinian Authority's economic boycott of the settlements is coming from. Palestinians cannot build a state from the bottom up -- and I wholeheartedly support such an enterprise -- while simultaneously strengthening economically the very settlements and East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods that undermine their chances of achieving success in their efforts at state-building.
Because the Palestinian boycott of goods manufactured in settlements is likely to be largely symbolic in its economic impact on Israel, and because many Palestinians will continue to work in the settlements and in Israeli industrial zones in the West Bank for want of genuine jobs in areas under Palestinian control, the boycott should be perceived largely as a state-building exercise directed at Palestinians. As such, its basic concept and its origins are legitimate.
However, for the economic boycott to be truly seen as legitimate by most Israelis and by many supporters of Israel, the thinking that informs it must be considerably refined. For example, the boycott began escalating just as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were about to resume, albeit indirectly. It is one thing for Palestinians to express lack of confidence in the prospects for success in the talks. But it is quite another to take a step whose timing, if nothing else, triggers yet more lack of trust on the part of Israelis who otherwise favor the talks. Why didn't the boycott start full-speed a year ago? Why now?
Then too, the boycott also covers products manufactured in the Golan Heights. Why is Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad expanding his state-building exercise to territories that the Palestinians do not claim? The Golan belongs to a different conflict, that with Syria, whose resolution requires very different rules and conditions than the conflict involving the Palestinians.
The boycott would also be better understood by Israelis if it were not perceived as part of a broader Palestinian political war against Israel that is much harder to explain. Why does the Palestinian Liberation Organization support the Goldstone report condemning Israel's behavior in the Gaza Strip in January 2009, when at the time it supported the Israeli military campaign against Hamas? Why object (abortively) to Israeli membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, when the settlements constitute a negligible portion of Israel's economy and the Palestinian campaign is understood by Israelis to seek to remove their country from the very global standards and legitimacy the Palestinians profess to uphold?
My highly qualified and conditional acknowledgement of the Palestinians' right to boycott the settlement economy does not reflect any specific hostility toward the settlers, who for the most part settled on the land at the behest of a succession of Israeli governments. Nor does it indicate any lack of identification with their attachment to the heart and soul of the ancient Jewish homeland. But the settlements were a grand strategic error on Israel's part. Another people live on the land, with the right to self-determination and sovereignty. Settlers who wish to remain residents of a future Palestinian state will have to abide by its citizenship and residency laws, and I doubt many will wish to do so, anymore than Israeli Jews have opted to live in Egypt or Jordan, two countries at peace with Israel.
Fayyad's boycott is, as noted, largely symbolic in impact. Like the far less symbolic settlement freeze, it signals that Palestinians and the rest of the world are finally ceasing to acquiesce in Israel's settlements folly. Any Israeli or supporter of Israel who hopes to begin resolving this conflict should support the general idea of Fayyad's state-building enterprise. But because at the end of the day the Palestinian prime minister needs Israel's support, too, Fayyad should pay close attention to criticism of his policy where it appears exaggerated, unfocused or downright counterproductive.
Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and was a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter publishing contending views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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