During the 1980s Ronald Reagan’s anti-boycott policy toward South Africa was known as “Constructive Engagement,” which claimed the positive influence of U.S. corporate participation in South Africa would be more effective towards ending apartheid than direct pressure on the regime. Writing in November 1985, MIT Finance professor John E. Parsons articulated a critique of this approach widely held in the anti-apartheid movement saying that failure to divest from apartheid was tantamount to supporting it:
US corporations continue to operate in South Africa because it is profitable. Apartheid makes it very profitable. These corporations pay millions of dollars in taxes which pay for the police, prisons, weapons, and armaments that maintain the apartheid system. They sell the government its armored personnel carriers, its computers and communications technologies. Westinghouse has sold South Africa several licenses for the manufacture of nuclear power facilities.
And every US industrial facility is integrated into the civil defense plans of the South African government…includ[ing] turning over its facilities for military production at the direction of the South African government.
That’s “constructive engagement.”
Perhaps we should try disinvestment.
That same year, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who also supported a “constructive engagement approach”, directly addressed issue of boycotting South Africa in an interview with CBS television. Her argument will seem familiar to anti-BDS arguments today:
I think a policy of sanctions would harm the very people in South Africa you are trying to help…I agree with a policy of trying to influence South Africa by other means. The present Government is moving forward in the direction we wish them to go, faster than any other. Sanctions will harm, not help.
It is now commonly accepted that her view (and Reagan’s, of course) was wrong, both morally and strategically. Apartheid was hugely profitable then, just as the Israeli occupation of Palestine is immensely profitable now. The United States, Britain and Israel all maintained lucrative economic and military relationships with the Apartheid regime long after the rest of the international community heeded the call to boycott and divest. Barak Ravid pointed out in Ha’aretz last year that, by 1987, “Israel was the only Western nation that upheld diplomatic ties with South Africa” and was one of the last countries to join the international boycott campaign.
A few years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted the absurdity of opposing boycotts under the banner of solidarity with the victims of apartheid. Countless universities around the world, which have since honored him with honorary degrees, had previously punished their own faculty members for anti-Apartheid political activities and “refused to divest from South Africa because ‘it will hurt the blacks’ (investing in apartheid South Africa was not seen as a political act; divesting was),” Tutu wrote in South Africa’s Times. “Let this inconsistency please not be the case with support for the Palestinians in their struggle against occupation,” he pleaded.
In her staunch opposition to joining the boycott campaign, Thatcher argued against effectively punishing the culprits of severe discrimination and oppression for fear that such actions would backfire and stem chances for positive change. In late 1977, for example, Thatcher declared, “In my view, isolation will lead only to an increasingly negative and intransigent attitude in the part of white South Africa.”
These exact sentiments are now echoed in the liberal Zionist community with respect to even the most timid and selective application of BDS. In March 2012, J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami provided the same reasoning behind his own opposition to the boycott of settlement goods during a conversation with discourse gatekeeper Jeffrey Goldberg:
I don’t think that it makes any sense to put negative pressure on people whose behavior you hope to change. I think that the way that Israelis will feel comfortable making the compromises and the sacrifices–and Israel as a whole, not just the settlers –is when they really feel that not only American Jews, but the United States, is going to be there for them. I think if you begin to do things that say, ‘We’re not really with you, we’re against you, we’re putting pressure on you,’ I think that causes people to pull more into a shell and pull back…Rather than it making you more inclined to do something, it actually makes you less inclined.…you can’t use boycotts, you can’t threaten aid, you can’t use these kinds of forms of negative pressure. I think you’re right to extrapolate. It is all of a piece that these negative approaches to trying to get people to do something you want them to do, we’ve lumped them all together for four years and said, this doesn’t work.What you need to do, I often call it positive pressure instead of negative pressure. Positive pressure means actually giving people hope and something to believe in again.
Beyond this, as I’ve noted in the past, Ben-Ami’s opposition to “negative pressure” only extends to his own tribe; Iranians, of course, don’t get such a compassionate plea for positive reinforcement when it comes to their nuclear program, which doesn’t violate international law, as opposed to Israeli colonization of Palestine, which does.
As per the apartheid analogy, it may also be interesting to note that such a correlation between South Africa and Israel was made by a British Parlimentarian – and one of Thatcher’s fellow Conservatives, no less – back in June 1984. MP Tony Marlow tried to point out the hypocrisy of the liberal Labor party’s outcry over Apartheid and its silence on Israel (the point, no doubt, was supposed to be to get them to shut up about Apartheid, not the other way around.)
Thatcher contested his analogy and affirmed her support for “constructive engagement.” She confidently stood her ground on the wrong side of history. Nearly two decades later, liberal Zionists are standing alongside her.