Amid the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, another diplomatic crisis has been brewing: the imminent release of a United Nations Human Rights Council report on companies operating outside Israel’s internationally sanctioned borders – along with Israeli and American attempts to prevent its publication. On its surface, the list of firms working beyond the Green Line is not too dissimilar to policies of self-described progressive Zionist groups, many of which encourage settlement boycotts. Foreign efforts to distinguish between Israel-proper and the occupied territories can be successful, but not when initiated by heavily discredited organizations like the UN which muster little, if any, clout among Israelis.
Originally created as a replacement for the infamous and severely discredited Commission on Human Rights in 2006, the Council quickly reverted to its precursor’s behavior, and has since come to be seen by many as a rogue’s gallery of human rights abusers who have banded together to avoid having their own records scrutinized. The document in question differs greatly from the boilerplate resolutions that denounce—sometimes justifiably, sometimes not—Israeli actions. Accusations of ‘whataboutism’ notwithstanding, it is impossible to ignore the council’s dismal track record or the the fact that a number of the member states who voted in favor of this are party to their own occupations and territorial disputes, complete with settlements and creeping annexation. Indeed, it is difficult to justify the HRC’s creation of such a document that exclusively targets Israel with a blacklist given the behavior of any number of states also administer territory beyond their legal borders, including Turkey, Morocco, and Armenia.
The report is just one of many examples of a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ approach in targeting Israel’s behavior in an ostensibly legitimate manner, revealing a problematic bias and some might argue, deep cynicism on the part of its initiators, or a commitment to a ‘non-aligned’ worldview that applies double standards to Israel, while ignoring similar or worse infractions on the part of countries who are ideological partners. The latter example can be found in recent deliberations of South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, which is now considering downgrading ties with Israel in protest of the government’s current policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. However, it is difficult to understand how the pressure of reduced ties with South Africa will positively affect Israeli behavior when the former is in the process of renewing ties with Morocco, which has no plan of relinquishing its claims on Western Sahara, or when one takes into consideration the party’s defense of hosting Sudanese leader Omar Al-Bashir against the wishes of the International Criminal Court, or of it’s turning a blind eye to violations committed by former president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe. Of course, none of this should surprise even casual observers of the Arab-Israeli conflict: this type of behavior was normalized decades ago and perfected in venues like the long-hostile UN General Assembly. What makes this example so frustrating is not yet another slight to which many Israelis have simply become inured, but rather the opportunity squandered by its surrounding controversy.
It is unlikely that that the release of the list will be met with anything other than scorn by most Israeli politicians, who will gladly exploit mistrust of the UN, and of international organizations in general, to reinforce an already formidable siege mentality, galvanizing the far-right’s worldview that the international community’s criticisms are blatantly hypocritical, and thus irrelevant. This reaction, in turn, is likely to be received with a complete lack of introspection as to why even those Israelis hostile to the settlement enterprise find this particular strategy so repellent. Similarly, a reduction or annulment of ties between South Africa might simply be read as a selective form of punishment by a country that chooses to maintain its relations with states with far more severe human rights records. Thus, Israeli civil society will suffer as critics of the occupation, both domestic and foreign, are once again vilified for political gain, and anti-Israel partisans will have their worst suspicions of Israel confirmed while shunting aside their own misdeeds, continuing a vicious circle of recriminations, until the next predictable round.
The lesson to be learned from all of this should not be that Israeli public opinion or the behavior of its political class is deaf to change. On the contrary; the European Union’s recent ENI CBB Med agreement with Israel shows that opposition to settlement activity does not need to take the form of a blatant and aggressive boycott. The project, which awards funding to wide array of organizations working for socioeconomic change in the region in fields including research, innovation, and education, stipulates that said funding does not apply to territories outside of Israel’s internationally recognized borders. Lest anyone think that this would a non-starter for the current coalition, the agreement has already been signed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
Nor is this the first time that the government was provided with such stipulations regarding European funding. The Horizons 2020 agreement of 2013 that made similar demands of the government was initially met with hand-wringing and apprehension on the part of right-wing coalition members; nonetheless it too was signed. Despite fiery rhetoric that demanded the government stand its ground on settlements, even many of the coalition’s most nationalist of MKs recognized that when push comes to shove, the state could not afford to risk millions in funding for the sake of ideological considerations. Thus, a happy medium was eventually found that would allow the coalition to save face while promising the Europeans the funds provided would not reach the settlements. The European Union played its hand well, making clear that while it welcomed Israel’s participation in these programs and viewed it as a partner with tremendous input, there were constraints on funding to be taken into consideration. By setting these limits, the EU affirmed that, regardless of how much time and energy is put into creating facts on the ground, the territory beyond the Green Line on which Israel continues to build will not be designated Israeli unless agreed to in any final negotiations with the PLO.
Opposition to settlements should not be the exclusive purview of either the left or right, nor should it be seen as a taboo subject beyond the pale of discussion. But when initiatives of this kind are launched by tainted organizations or individuals like the UNHRC with a history of bias or animus towards the state, Israelis will ‘circle the wagons’ and understandably dismiss them as cynical posturing unworthy of consideration. The demands made the EU show that not all such initiatives are created equal, nor must they be based on confrontation with a governing coalition that thrives on pitting public sentiment against what is perceived to be an incorrigibly hostile world. Effective tools against settlement expansion lie in the hands of Israel’s international allies who have Israel’s long term interests—including its survival as a Jewish and democratic state—at heart, delineating a line between a ‘legitimate’ Israel and another that is recognized by no one in the in the global community.