The Trump Effect on Israeli Politics

Abir Sultan, pool via AP, File

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem. 

Rabbi Arthur Green wants to know if he can still come to Israel.

Green asked the question in a letter originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz, the Israeli daily. He said he's scheduled to be here in Israel for academic conferences in June and October, and that during his last trip he gave 15 lectures. Green is modest; he doesn't explain how prominent he is in the American Jewish community as a rabbinic educator, theologian, and scholar of Jewish mysticism.

He does, however, say that he will not use wine from the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba for kiddush, the blessing over wine on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. There are grounds to believe that products of settlements are tainted by theft, he writes with careful understatement. In his letter, he encourages others to follow his practice. That is, he openly encourages boycotting the products of a settlement.

So, he asks, is he now barred from entering Israel? That's the implication of the law recently enacted by the Knesset, which says that no visa of any kind will be given to a would-be visitor who has called for a boycott of Israel, or who “has committed himself to take part in such a boycott.” And this also applies to any form of boycott of Israeli settlements.

So, Green asks, should he cancel his trips?

Since I lack his awe-inspiring restraint, I'll rephrase this question to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the lawmakers of his right-wing coalition: Are you for real? Do you get that you just legislated our very own travel ban, one that obligates you to deny visas not just to BDS supporters, but also to everyone like Rabbi Arthur Green—supporters of Israel who, out of real concern for the country's character, will not buy settlement products? Do you realize how just plain embarrassing this is going to get?

Let's work our way through the law's absurdities. To start, it treats the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign as if it were a serious threat to Israel. The recent sale of the Israeli high-tech firm Mobileye to Intel for $15.3 billion—the latest and largest acquisition of an Israeli start-up by an international tech giant—hints at how silly this is. The mainstay of the Israeli economy is high-tech, with innovations tangled into everything you use. An effective consumer boycott of Israel would start with its supporters throwing their phones in the nearest lake and continue with them swearing off all that is digital. This isn't going to be a thing.

On the other hand, sanctions by foreign governments would be serious business. The best way for Israel to avoid those is to reassure its Western allies and trading partners that inside Israel proper, democracy is flourishing, while the future of the occupied territories is a policy disagreement among friends. A law banning foreign visitors based on their political statements and affiliations doesn't say much for democratic norms. For a BDS activist, getting some press on being turned back at the airport because of her political opinions is likely to be much more useful than wandering around the occupied territories snapping pictures of roadblocks and settlements.

The law itself aims to erase distinctions between Israel and the occupied territories. It fits the Israeli right's stance that opposition to settlements is pretty much the same as hostility toward Israel's very existence. This is both a mindset—Netanyahu and his allies really do see the settlements as integrally part of Israel—and a political tactic. It tars critics of government policies as enemies of the state. It creates bogeymen.

The liberal majority of American Jews generally opposes settlement, as polling shows. That doesn't mean that lots of U.S. Jews actively boycott settlements—assuming they run into settlement products that they can avoid buying. (It's not as if there's a boutique wine from a settlement vineyard in every American liquor store.) But my guess is that the new law will cause more U.S. Jews to boycott settlements, and to say so publicly. Green's letter won't be an isolated case.

So by legislating against settlement boycotts, the right-wing majority in the Knesset has actually promoted them. From my perspective, that's the one positive thing that can be said about the law. But it's not what the law's authors had in mind.

This brings us to another folly: Any attempt to enforce the law is likely cause one PR disaster after another, as prominent Diaspora Jews get stopped at Ben-Gurion Airport and pushed onto return flights It's much more likely that the law will be enforced sporadically or not at all. Perhaps the line allowing the interior minister to grant an individual boycotter a visa under special circumstances will be applied to virtually everyone. The law could well be a dead letter, whose only effect will have been to highlight the kind of protest it's ostensibly meant to prevent.

So why bother with such a law, and why now? The answer to the first half of that question is that the Israeli right has historically had a penchant for grand gestures and declarations, especially ones that strike a pose of defiance.

As for the timing, the answer is pretty clear: Donald Trump.

Since January, discussion of U.S.-Israel relations has quite reasonably focused on the new regime's attitude toward settlement-building and peace efforts. But this is too narrow a perspective. For years, the Israeli right has been trying to chip away at democratic rights through legislation. One impediment has been fear of the American reaction. The fear is gone.

In early February, the Knesset passed a law allowing the government to expropriate private Palestinian land on which settlements had been built. It violates basic property rights as enshrined in international law. The bill was held up in the last days of the Obama administration, then quickly passed after the change of power in Washington.

Next came the law barring entry to boycott advocates. It's not as if anyone expects a strong message from Washington in 2017 against a travel ban that flies in the face of fundamental rights. As for relations with liberal American Jews, that's clearly not on Netanyahu's list of concerns.

Neither is having the new law actually accomplish anything. The point is the statement: The world (except for the White House) is against us, but we are defiant. With the rise of Trump, the paranoid style is in full control in Israeli politics.

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