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Settlement Squeeze

Sometimes you need a bit of luck even to record outrageous opinions from Israel’s Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. Maybe it was a measure of the seriousness with which they view the topic that settler representatives and businessmen in the West Bank sounded muted rather than strident recently when discussing economic pressure tactics that were being deployed against them. They were after all talking about a growing international movement that has the potential to dislodge them.

“Hum, yes, I have to admit that it really is a big problem for us,” one of the representatives said. Not exactly the kind of fire and brimstone, take no prisoners quote that we can usually rely on the religious-nationalist Israeli fringe for. The sharpest dig was reserved for the various Israeli movements that call for economic steps against the settlements and that have encouraged foreign groups and sometimes governments to follow suit. “Yes, it’s the beautiful souls from Tel-Aviv who are behind it,” one of the spokesmen said. ‘Beautiful souls’ being a scornful nickname for the naïve lily-livered left-wing peacenik crowd.

Settler confidence should be up now that they have the right-wing government of their dreams with Avigdor Lieberman there to keep the wavering Bibi Netanyahu on the right and narrow. Instead it seems that they are starting to realise that their time is running out, that they have become an unsettling anachronism: while every previous Israeli government has given overt or covert support to their expansion, from now on every government will at least overtly have to try and push them back. They are the one thing that most of the international community can agree on that stands in the way of a viable Palestinian state and as such of Middle East bliss, the containment of Iran and world peace.

For the international public the settlers have become the most obvious symptom of the occupation and the occupation has, wrongly, been transformed into the cause of the conflict. To the European left as well as to activists elsewhere Israel has become the next international cause in the series that included Vietnam and South Africa. The campaign follows the pattern of the one against apartheid and is starting to focus on economic, academic and cultural boycotts. One of the dangers as well as one of the strengths of such campaigns is that they often overshoot their target and become aimed against the very existence of Israel in its present form. It’s a strength because it may scare the bejeezes out of non-settler Israelis and finally make them break with their more lunatic policies but it’s also dangerous because if such overall anti-Israeli campaigns persist they will only cause the conflict to harden and drag on even longer.

The campaigns that are clearly aimed at the settlers and their economic infrastructure also get a measure of official approval. The EU since 2003 is demanding that Israel clearly label products from the settlements so that they can be taxed, the idea being that they fall outside the scope of the Israel-EU trade agreements. Senior Israeli business officials challenge this assumption and say tat Israel only agreed to the labelling because it was worried that all its exports to the EU might suffer. One senior former negotiator, both with the EU and the Palestinians, also says that the EU’s measures against settlement products hamper economic cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians and undermine peace efforts, which is a bit like saying that resisting a mugging hampers the trickle-down effect.

Clearly the most dangerous aspect to the settlers and the Israeli right wing in general is that both official measures and consumer boycotts may cause resentment towards the settlers among ordinary Israelis. Boycotts can be effective against Israel, almost exclusively among countries currently involved in conflicts, because it is a democracy whose citizens very much want to be part of the larger world. It is also has a relatively large and affluent middle class that does not want to see its position eroded by foolhardy ideologists who live far from its own centres.

A spokesperson for one of the Israeli groups that urge a settler products boycott confirmed this when saying that, “we are not sure that you should draw a distinction between boycotting the products from settlements or boycotting Israeli products in general if society keeps tolerating the settlements.” Then the spokesperson tried to drive the wedge even deeper: “the government compensates settler companies that lose money because their export to the EU are taxed.” That is to say that Israeli taxpayers are subsidising the settlers even more.

The settlers themselves play the total Israeli boycott card the other way. They are trying to scare their fellow Israelis into circling the wagons using the same arguments: “first it is us, next it is Jerusalem and then all Israeli products will be targeted.” They deny that there is a difference between them and the rest of the country and say that opposing the settlements is just an excuse for being anti-Israeli in general.

Some recent developments such as the attempted UK academic boycott, divestment drives and consumer boycotts over the Gaza operation earlier this year strengthen their argument. Gaza in particular alarmed the Israeli business community. It showed the potential for massive international anti-Israel campaigns. But unlike the settlements, which a majority in the country may actually oppose, Gaza was widely seen as inevitable and necessary. If most Israelis feel that they will be punished because of actions that they deem justified, they will be more likely to circle the wagons as the settlers want.