Frankly Scarlett, You Should Give a Damn

Outside of being celebrities and having Jewish mothers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Scarlett Johansson aren't usually thought of having a lot in common. But they've been displaying another shared quality of late: the ability to act clueless about the suddenly snowballing economic boycott of Israeli settlements.

To be fair, it's a lot more likely that Netanyahu is the one putting on an act. Johansson sincerely appeared to have little idea about what she was getting into when she agreed to be the straw-sipping poster girl of SodaStream, the Israeli maker of home fizzy-drink devices that produces wares in the industrial park of a West Bank settlement. "I never intended on being the face of any social or political movement… or stance," she said in a press statement responding to criticism of her role advertising the firm. This sounds painfully naïve: Nothing having to do with Israeli settlements in occupied territory comes packaged without a political stance, but Johansson may have noticed this only after the ink was dry on the contract. Politics isn't her profession.

It is Netanyahu's trade, though. So when he responded to a comment by John Kerry as if the secretary of state had personally threatened Israel with economic sanctions, either Netanyahu knew better or he should have. Kerry, answering a question publicly at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, described potential consequences of a failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that he is brokering. "There are [sic] talk of boycotts and other things," Kerry said.  Netanyahu angrily responded in his weekly TV photo-op before the Sunday morning cabinet meeting. "Attempts to impose a boycott on the State of Israel are immoral and unjust," he declared. To make sure the boss's intent was clear, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz—often a political doppelgänger for Netanyahu—threw in, "Kerry's comments on a boycott … are insulting and intolerable."

An analogy may be helpful here. Kerry's remark was a descriptive warning, the equivalent of telling a friend, "I'm worried about you. If you don't stop drinking, you'll lose your job." Netanyahu responded as if the friend had threatened to get him fired, and answered, "No one's going to tell me what to do." This isn't a way to maintain friendships.

But as we know, people can get angriest at such warnings when they're true. And in recent weeks, the boycott issue has gone from a peripheral threat to an immediate reality. It has become cause for furious exchanges between cabinet members that foreshadow the collapse of Netanyahu's governing coalition when Kerry finally lays out his framework for a peace agreement.

Here are a few of the eco-sanction headlines that Israelis have been reading: Germany announced that its grants to Israeli high-tech projects will henceforth include a clause barring any funding of projects in occupied territory. A major Dutch firm announced it was backing out of a cooperation deal with the Israeli national water firm Mekorot because the latter pipes waters to settlements. One of the Netherlands' central pension-management funds decided not to invest in Israeli banks that provide financing for building in settlements—which means all major Israeli banks. Norway's government instructed its sovereign wealth fund, which invests the country's oil revenues, not to touch a major Israeli construction company and its subsidiary because they build in settlements. The Romanian government reportedly nixed a deal to enable Romanians to work in the building trades in Israel, lest they end up on settlement construction sites.

These sanctions affect companies and institutions that do business on both sides of the pre-1967 line—but they're all aimed at settlement activity. They're also all European actions. The avalanche began last summer when the European Union laid down guidelines for its own bodies: funds allocated for cooperation with Israel have to be spent in Israel, not in the West Bank, and agreements must say so explicitly. As Israeli officials feared, individual European governments and companies are following the EU lead. Germany joining the trend says it all, given that country's deep, penitence-driven support for a Jewish state. These are Israel's allies, not its enemies. They believe that the settlement habit is driving Israel to ruin. To extend the analogy above, they are like friends telling a heavy drinker, "I'm not lending you subway money unless I know you won't spend it on a bottle."

The escalating debate within the Israeli government shows that these measures are having an impact, if not setting off a panic. Since the right insists the pre-1967 border is a no more than a historical memory, and a vague one at that, it also refuses to acknowledge any distinction between sanctions aimed at settlements and measures aimed against Israel's existence. Steinitz seeks funding for an international media campaign against "delegitimization" of Israel. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, described boycotts as the new face of anti-Semitism, and has also called for a grand new advertising effort in response. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who's in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, answered Bennett on her Facebook with suggestions for truthful slogans, such as, "This isn't South Africa—here the Palestinians aren't second-class citizens, they just aren't citizens at all."

Imagine, if you will, how Netanyahu would have responded if John Kerry had uttered that sentence. Yet it wasn't the first time that Livni has used the words "South Africa" in warning of the consequences of permanent Israeli rule of the West Bank.  Netanyahu hasn't dismissed her. He only has a majority in parliament by keeping the dedicated advocates of a two-state agreement in his coalition along with the most intransigent opponents. The coalition can survive a Norwegian investment ban. It's hard to see how it will hold together when it has to decide whether to accept an American peace framework calling for a near-total pullback to the pre-1967 lines. Truly, the boycott comment is not the main reason that Kerry makes Netanyahu irritable.

As for Netanyahu's other, momentary, political partner, Johansson answered criticism of her SodaStream deal with a script written for her by the company: The company's factory in Ma'aleh Adumim provides jobs to Palestinians who receive the same pay as Israelis. This answer is besides the point—not only because Ma'aleh Adumim is on land expropriated in violation of the 1907 Hague Convention on occupation, and not only because Israeli governments subsidized factories in settlements as one more way to make the occupation permanent. It's also because the occupation prevents the growth of an industrialized Palestinian economy that could employ those workers and many more.

With all due respect, Johansson should have learned more about this before signing the contract. She should care about it. Frankly, Scarlett, you should give a damn.   

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