Will boycotting Israel help the Palestinians?

The decision of the Marrickville Council in Sydney to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel has heightened the debate about the best way to support the Palestinian struggle for self determination.

The Socialist Party has been asked by a number of groups and individuals if our Councillors on Yarra City Council in Melbourne would consider supporting the campaign. Below we outline our views on the matter.

Palestinians in the occupied territories are suffering a nightmare existence, with starvation-level economic conditions and daily military repression at the hands of the Israeli army including regular killings and assassinations.

With this situation, any support for a boycott of Israeli goods and institutions is understandable and usually well-intentioned, but it is necessary to look closely at the consequences of such a call and examine whether it would aid the Palestinians’ struggle.

In some circumstances, usually as an adjunct to other action, boycotts can have a certain effect, and in some situations a decisive effect. The example of the international boycott on the South African apartheid regime is sometimes given, a boycott that received much media attention at the time. Many people participated in it to show their hatred of the regime. However, it was the mass movement of black South African workers that ended apartheid, not the boycott itself.

In the case of Israel, a boycott is unlikely to have a significant economic impact, not least because it will attract only partial participation. More importantly it would play into the hands of the worst right-wing warmongers in Israel, and alienate Israeli workers, who are the only force capable of removing the brutal Israeli regime and participating in a lasting settlement with the Palestinian people.

Unlike several other groups on the left we understand that there is a class divide within Israel. On this basis we are concerned that the BDS campaign has already been used by Israeli capitalist politicians to launch a propaganda offensive aimed at Israeli workers, driving those workers into the arms of the Israeli right. They argue that it shows that Israeli Jews are under siege and need to stick together against what they portray as an anti-Semitic stance.

This propaganda has an effect, because the starting point is that Israeli workers do not accept that their livelihoods should be affected by boycotts from workers’ organisations abroad.

Israeli Jewish workers are also inevitably alarmed when some of the staunchest advocates of boycott action have a record of opposing the right of the Jewish people to their own state. Whereas in the case of South Africa, a majority of black workers there supported international sanctions against the ruling white elite, Israeli workers are not in agreement with sanctions against Israel.

The calling for a boycott under these conditions is a mistake, and a gift to the Israeli right. The Israeli regime has never been weaker than it is at present. The government is in severe crisis, mired in corruption and with huge splits.

The wealth gap and the divide between the interests of the ruling layer and the mass of the working population has never been greater. Responding to wave after wave of privatisation and cuts in services and living standards, workers and students have engaged in many strikes and other struggles in the recent period.

On the issue of the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, consistently around two-thirds of Israelis want to see military withdrawal and the Palestinians having their own state. An increasing number of young Israelis do not want to do army service in the occupied territories.

With this being the case the movement in support of Palestinian self determination should be putting forward demands that promote class unity in the region. The reality is that both the Palestinians and Israeli workers have the same enemy – the Israeli ruling class and imperialism.

Workers and young people internationally should strongly support and aid struggles of the Palestinians against the Israeli regime’s occupation, particularly mass struggles when they arise such as during the first intifada and the beginning of the second intifada (the Socialist Party, though, does not advocate support for some methods, such as suicide bombings of Israeli civilians inside Israel).

However, it is also essential to give full support and aid to struggles of Israeli workers against the Israeli regime, as the most effective way of weakening it further by revealing and opening up the class divisions. Israeli workers’ struggles should be linked as far as possible to those of Arab workers in the region.

The Palestinians and the Israeli Jews have a right to their own separate states. But achieving such states, with lasting, peaceful co-existence and decent living standards, will be unviable on a capitalist basis.

The only way that will be possible, will be on the basis of Israeli workers building the workers’ movement in Israel to challenge the power, profit and prestige of the Israeli capitalist class, and of Palestinian workers also building their own united movement.

The latter would need to lead the struggle towards a genuine Palestinian state with decent living standards for all in it, while supporting the right of Israeli workers to their own state alongside it, as part of a socialist confederation.

Achieving an end to bloodshed and the existence of two states is inseparable from the struggle for socialism. Only by removing the profit motive will we be able to raise the living standards for workers on both sides of the national divide. It will only be a socialist solution that removes the basis for conflict once and for all. Unfortunately the call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions will not bring us any closer to this goal.

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