Is it illegal to boycott Israel?

"A boycott of Israel would not help us, but a boycott of the settlers would"

The background to the boycott polemics

Several trade unions and non-governmental organizations had expressly asked Richard to end his cooperation with Partner Communications in late May. They accuse the Israeli telecom company, which has a market share of 28 percent, of supporting human rights violations with its activities in the settlements.

Israel reacted with harsh criticism to Richard's words, interpreting them as a call for an economic boycott against Israel. Since then, the house blessing between Paris and Jerusalem has been hanging crooked, although French President François Hollande tried to smooth things over. Orange, 25 percent owned by the French state, also tried to limit the damage.

CEO Stéphane Richard speaks of a misunderstanding. Orange does not plan to withdraw from Israel. Richard, however, plans to make atonement in person in Israel soon. Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the other hand, poured some oil on the fire and railed that Richard's statements testified to a hostile sentiment and were part of it "an orchestrated, global campaign to delegitimize Israel".

ARTE Journal spoke to the Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery about this boycott polemic. The journalist and writer, who was born in Germany and emigrated to Israel in 1933, is known far beyond Israel's borders. He sat for a long time as a left-wing member of the Knesset, was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize and was a founding member of the Gush Shalom peace movement, which stands for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians and a two-state solution.


The report

The Palestinian movement that called for an international boycott against Israel is called BDS (Boycott, Divestments an Sanctions). Their argument: Israel could only be forced to an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories through a merciless economic, cultural, sports and academy boycott - just as South Africa had to give up apartheid only through external pressure. In recent years, BDS has mainly scored in terms of music: Santana, U2, Elvis Costello and Lauryn Hill are just a few names of big pop stars who canceled concerts in Israel. Now the economic boycott is also coming into full swing, like the recent scandal over the Telekom Orange Group proves. But was that really an act of boycott?

The interview

ARTE Journal: How do you react to the boycott discussion that has flared up against Israel?

Uri Avnery: The peace movement Gush Shalom, of which I belong, called for a boycott of the settlements in the occupied territories, which was sharply criticized at the time, 18 years ago. We are convinced that the settlements are a threat to Israel's future, a threat to peace. The good thing about a boycott is that everyone decides for themselves and does not need to make an explanation. You simply decide whether or not to buy this or that product in the supermarket. It's a private decision. That's one of the main reasons we at Gush Shalom decided to call for a boycott. Any Israeli can follow this privately without declaring it publicly.

There is a huge difference between boycotting Israel as a state, as a society, or specifically boycotting the settlements, their products and the companies that support the settlements.

Uri Avnery

But a clear distinction must be made between the State of Israel in its recognized borders and the settlements in the occupied territories. There is a huge difference between calling for a boycott of the State of Israel and a boycott of the settlements and their products. I am against a general boycott of the State of Israel because it drives the Israeli people into the arms of the settlers, so to speak, and ultimately strengthens the far right in the country. That is exactly the wrong policy. Because it blurs the line. It is very important to draw a clear line between the people of Israel and the settlers.


How do you rate the statements made by Stéphane Richard, who announced Orange's withdrawal from Israel at the beginning of June?

Uri Avnery: That looks pretty miserable to me, the man should have thought about what to say beforehand. What he actually wants is not clear to me. His point of view seems rather confused to me. Because once again: there is a huge difference between boycotting Israel as a state, as a society, or specifically boycotting the settlements, their products and the companies that support the settlements.


Uri Avnery

The EU's plans to clearly label products from Israeli settlements in European supermarkets have so far failed due to the German veto. And this despite the fact that the EU also regards the settlements as a violation of international law.

Uri Avnery: I am clearly in favor of such a label. What's more, we were in Brussels for ten years to demand just that. We want Europe and the whole world to boycott the settlements. That you send the clear message to the settlers: you are illegal and you are harming Israel. As is so often the case, the German reaction is somewhat unclear here. Germans have a guilty conscience, with very good reason. But a guilty conscience shouldn't lead to support for Israeli policies that oppress the Palestinians.


Benjamin Netanyahu's government has new zoning plans for the occupied territories again, although these settlements are the main obstacle on the way to a two-state solution. How do you assess the situation?

Uri Avnery: The current situation is bad. Even if the results of the last election in March were not as dramatic for us as we feared. The government majority in the Knesset is just 61 votes, and that with 120 parliamentary seats. So the Netanyahu government depends on a single vote. However, we need more publicity to oppose government policy. Boycotting Israel would not help us, but boycott the settlers would.

Support for a two state solution - the only solution there is - is still very strong among the Israeli population today.

Uri Avnery

It is difficult to estimate how many people are actually boycotting the settlements today. What I can say, however, is that support for a two state solution - the only solution there is - is still very strong among the Israeli population today. I think the majority, perhaps even the vast majority, of the Israeli people support the two-state solution. And we need support from abroad to drive this solution forward.


Prime Minister Netanyahu refuses to interfere in what he calls the internal affairs between Israelis and Palestinians. How do you see it

Uri Avnery: After the Holocaust, there are no more internal matters for me. Back then, the whole world should have intervened. Therefore no one on this earth can look indifferently by when peoples, when people are oppressed, no matter where. Therefore, I do not recognize that this is supposed to be an internal matter. That is the language of the 19th century, we live in a different world today.