There is some debate regarding the extent to which boycott and divestment directly contributed to the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. I think there can be no doubt however, that a growing sense of isolation among white South Africans did play an important if not decisive role in bringing an end to minority rule and institutionalised discrimination in that country.
Without getting into the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Israeli economy, I think it is reasonable to assume that BDS will have little real economic impact on Israel (a few recent victories and Minister Yair Lapid’s scaremongering notwithstanding). For numerous reasons, it is highly unlikely that Israel’s largest trading partners, the United States and the European Union will ever participate in BDS in any significant way. It is also unlikely that other important markets, such as China, Russia or India will lend their support to such a campaign. What remains, in terms of exerting pressure on Israelis is the sense of international isolation.
It is often argued that Israelis have always felt isolated and shunned by the world, even during periods such as the one that immediately followed the signing of the Oslo Accords, in which Israel was very much embraced even by former enemies and harsh critics. This basic feeling that all international successes and alliances are ephemeral (witness the suspicion and outright hostility felt by many Israelis and supporters of Israel toward the Obama administration, simply because it is not quite as accommodating to perceived Israeli interests as its immediate predecessor), it is said, has made Israelis immune to campaigns to isolate it.
There is, however, a cultural, intellectual and financial elite in Israel, that is not quite so immune. This is the stratum of Israeli society that interacts the most with audiences, colleagues and partners abroad. Furthermore, the self-image of this elite is closely related to its place in the world – the western world in particular. At first, the vast majority of members of this group rejected the very notion of BDS (as I presume many white South Africans did, at the time), resorting to the familiar memes of anti-Semitism, the infamous (and ultimately unsuccessful) Arab Boycott, the misguided and counterproductive nature of academic and cultural boycott, and so forth. With time however, BDS will become harder and harder to dismiss with the kind of facile arguments offered by Israeli diplomacy and advocacy. It is not that easy to dismiss the views and actions of long-time friends and colleagues as merely stemming from latent anti-Semitism (arguments best left to Prosor and Foxman). They will probably continue to consider BDS unfair and wrong-headed, but they will take notice of it and, more importantly, of its root causes.
Figures such Prof. Zeev Sternhell and MK Zahava Gal-On are hardly mainstream in Israel, but they do represent a powerful elite – if only in terms of promoting the open, moderate and democratic image Israel cherishes so much in the world, even as they are denigrated and targeted by hostile governments and legislators at home. Neither Sternhell nor Gal-On support general BDS or all of the movement’s goals, but both have warned that Israel has in fact brought it on itself.
Omar Barghouti has said that BDS is a Palestinian choice and his message to those who wish to support the Palestinian struggle is to adhere to BDS “or get out of the way”. What will happen when the most internationally visible representatives of democratic Israel – the Israel that claims it does not deserved to be boycotted or sanctioned – decide, albeit with a heavy heart, to get out of the way?