Knesset of Fools

A harsh new anti-boycott bill will help achieve the exact opposite of what its advocates intended: the delegitimization of the Jewish state.

In the latest of a series of extraordinarily self-defeating moves, Israel's legislature, the Knesset, has just adopted the so-called "Boycott Bill," penalizing any call within Israel to boycott Israel or its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. The new law allows for civil suits against boycott supporters, denies them state benefits, and prevents the Israeli government from doing business with them. For a society terrified of what it sees as an international campaign of "delegitimization," its own parliament could not have produced a more stunning blow to Israel's legitimacy by conflating Israel as such with the settlements and the occupation.

Of course this law could not have been otherwise, since virtually all effective BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) efforts in the West have been targeted against the occupation and the settlements, not against Israel. Some BDS activists would clearly like to extend this campaign to target Israel proper, but such efforts have met with extremely limited success in Western societies. On the other hand, efforts to express disapproval of Israel's illegitimate settlement activities and therefore also illegitimate goods produced in the settlements have been meeting with a modest but increasing degree of effectiveness.

The "Boycott Bill," therefore, was never really about Israel at all, but about protecting the settlements and the settlers from a growing international campaign to refuse to subsidize a project that is a dagger aimed at the heart of prospects for a viable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as a blatant violation of international law. City councils and governments in Europe are increasingly distancing themselves from commercial activities connected to the occupation. Norway, for example, divested from Elbit Systems, a company that manufactures sensor devices for the West Bank separation barrier, and subsequently from Africa Israel Investments, which is heavily involved in settlement construction.

The campaign against Israeli settlements is real, but this new law will almost certainly backfire. By crudely conflating Israel -- which is almost universally regarded as a legitimate member state of the United Nations -- with its occupation and settlements in the West Bank -- which are almost universally regarded as illegitimate and indeed illegal, as well as a threat to peace -- the Knesset has yet again provided an official Israeli argument for those who would extend the boycott campaign to include all Israeli institutions and not just aspects of the occupation.

The Israeli government has done this numerous times in the past. For example, when Israel applied for OECD membership, the national economic statistics it presented included the entire settlement economy, but no statistics reflecting the Palestinian villages surrounding the settlements throughout the West Bank. What this suggests is an official Israeli perspective in which there is a virtual Israel that exists wherever a settler happens to be at any given moment, and an undefined, unresolved occupation everywhere else. This legally and politically untenable and indeed preposterous position is similarly reflected in the new "Boycott Bill."

Some of the boycott activities that Israel points to as "delegitimization" were forced by its own refusal to distinguish between itself and the settlements. In several instances, European vendors have made it clear that they are happy to sell Israeli products, but not those from the settlements, which they quite properly decline to support because they are illegitimate and dangerous. Israel has refused to provide any markings, identifying characteristics, or other indicators that would assure these vendors that the products in question were indeed from Israel and not from settlements in the occupied territories. As a consequence, several European vendors, particularly in Italy, simply stopped stocking Israeli imports, not because they objected to goods from Israel, but because they refuse to unwittingly sell settlement products and Israel will not distinguish them.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the Knesset members who passed the "Boycott Bill" and their supporters do not seem to understand that boycotts, divestment, and sanctions that are carefully targeted against the occupation and the settlements but scrupulously avoid targeting Israel legitimize rather than delegitimize the Israeli state. They say, in effect: We do not want to buy or sell the products of the illegitimate settlement program, but we are happy to buy or sell Israeli goods because Israel is a legitimate state. By carefully targeting the occupation and the settlements, such boycotts implicitly recognize the legitimacy of Israel itself. But to supporters of the settlements, this is of little or no importance. To them, it's all simply Israel.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been engaged in precisely this kind of boycott in the small areas under its control in the West Bank. Beginning in March 2010, it circulated brochures to every household in "Area A" complete with color images of the logos of the banned settlement companies so that no one could have any doubts about which products were unlawful. After an initial grace period, the PA began forcibly removing these products from Palestinian shops and then shortly afterward began prosecuting those distributing them. Palestinians have been effectively urging people the world over, including sympathetic Israelis, to join them in seeking clarity, and drawing a sharp distinction between Israel on the one hand and the settlement project on the other.

This Palestinian boycott of settlement goods is an integral part of the program of nonviolent resistance to occupation currently under way in the West Bank, and the international campaign is an extension of that. The "Boycott Bill" is an attack on precisely this kind of nonviolent protest, which is, of course, the appropriate alternative to the self-destructive and self-defeating violence of the past. But, as with other forms of nonviolent resistance, Israel is proving as intolerant to this nonviolent tactic as it has been to all other forms of combating the occupation. For Israel, it seems, the only accepted response is to submit and stop making a fuss of any kind.

It's no surprise that large numbers of prominent Knesset members were unaccountably missing from the "Boycott Bill" vote, most notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is not only because the law is an obvious affront to freedom of speech and other principles of democracy, but also because of the high likelihood it will be struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court. Canny Israeli politicians no doubt also understand that rhetorically conflating Israel and the settlements in such a crude manner is a very dangerous thing to do in the immediate term, and potentially disastrous in the long run.

Given the powerful international consensus against the settlements -- including the United States, which unequivocally holds that the settlement project is at least illegitimate, if not outright illegal, and which clearly distinguishes between Israel and the occupation -- this crude law inflicts the most powerful delegitimizing blow against Israel in living memory.

When the Knesset itself says it does not recognize the difference between any effort to boycott Israel and those that target the settlements, it invites the rest of the world to see things in the same light. It encourages those who would not stop at expressing disapproval of the occupation but wish to target Israel and Israelis generally. Moreover, by making Israel indistinguishable from the illegitimate settlement project, it raises the banner of delegitimization higher than any group of non-Israeli activists could ever have hoped to.



A Farewell to Russia

Democracy may not be the stuff of Viktor Yanukovich's dreams, but the Ukrainian president is quietly strengthening ties with the European Union.

There's no love lost between Europe and Ukraine's ruling regime -- or certainly between the Western press and Kiev. Indeed, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who unseated the pro-Western leaders of the Orange Revolution, is commonly depicted outside his country as an oppressive and reflexively pro-Russian figure. But while there's certainly something to this unflattering characterization, there's a bit more to the man -- and a lot more happening in Ukraine than the authoritarian picture most commentators paint.

It's certainly true that democracy in Ukraine is now under severe pressure. My conversations with Ukrainian civic leaders and investigative journalists during a visit last month left little doubt that they feel squeezed. The government gives them significantly less leeway to probe hot-button issues such as pervasive corruption than they had under the previous administration. Journalists who run afoul of the government often get called in for "chats" with the authorities, and their organizations are subjected to audits and inspections that hinder their work. What's worse, in the long term, there is no countervailing force to check Yanukovich and company should they decide to become even more undemocratic.

The 2012 parliamentary elections will be an important test of Yanukovich's willingness to adhere to democratic norms. Civic leaders worry that the government will game the outcome by instituting election rules that favor the ruling party and by packing the election committees with party loyalists. The opposition is on the defensive: Divided and demoralized, it has little popular appeal. The trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is also widely seen as politically motivated and based on flimsy evidence, though there is little sign that the opposition will be able to transform it into an issue that mobilizes public protests.

Still, Ukraine continues to have a lively press and a plethora of civic organizations. And there's an incongruent combination in the public sphere: Apathy abounds, but polls reveal that 45 percent of the citizenry is willing to join street demonstrations. So Ukrainian democracy, while under duress, is by no means demolished.

There's no doubt the president and his Party of Regions, which enjoys a stronghold in Ukraine's Russophone east, have worked to reverse what they considered the gratuitous anti-Russian stance of the previous president, Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovich's cabinet contains vociferously pro-Russian individuals, the school curriculum is being revised to de-emphasize the Orange Revolution, and official foreign-policy pronouncements are invariably positive toward Russia. Yanukovich also made it clear that Ukraine would not join NATO -- a concession he made flat-out, without seeking anything in exchange.

Perhaps most controversially, within two months of his inauguration, Yanukovich signed the Kharkiv Agreement with Moscow, which extended Russia's Black Sea Fleet's lease on the base at the Crimean port of Sevastopol by 25 years, with an additional five-year option.

Yanukovich's decision to ink the deal wasn't simply a sign of submission to his powerful eastern neighbor. He did so in exchange for a favorable deal on Russian gas, which seemed at the time as if it could shave $3 billion off its gas import bill. (Alas, the deal may not have been all that he hoped for: Ukraine, which abuts Russia and buys more Russian gas than any European country -- almost 40 billion cubic meters, about two-thirds of its consumption -- still pays more than European importers do.)

There's another part of Ukraine's foreign policy, meanwhile, and it doesn't get covered as much. Ukraine's current leaders, despite their authoritarian bent and Moscow's clear opposition, are in negotiations with the European Union on an accord called the "Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area" (DCFTA). (Yes, it's an ungainly moniker, but we're talking about the EU bureaucracy, after all.)

The DCFTA tends to be mislabeled as a plan to phase out tariffs in EU-Ukraine trade. It is actually about much more. Aside from trade liberalization, it envisages regulatory convergence on a raft of issues, ranging from the environment and energy policy to intellectual property rights. It also includes benchmarks on democracy and good governance.

The EU monitors Ukraine's progress in compliance with the DCFTA's provisions. Could Yanukovich sign and then renege on implementation? Sure. Democracy and transparency are not the stuff of his dreams. But doing so would lead to a fracas between the EU and Ukraine at a time when Yanukovich needs to demonstrate economic achievements in the run-up to the 2012 elections. In the event of gross noncompliance, the DCFTA could withhold tariff benefits and investment to Ukraine -- losses that will affect the common man in Ukraine and possibly the course of the election campaign.

But my discussions with Ukrainian officials leave little doubt that, on balance, Yanukovich's government is serious about the DCFTA and understands that Ukraine won't be allowed to breeze in. Moreover, despite Russian urging -- and, some Ukrainian officials say, outright pressure -- Kiev has spurned the Customs Union (CU) that binds Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan for the EU.

What explains the choice?

For all his limitations -- and there are many -- Yanukovich relishes being feted in Europe's halls of power. His first trip abroad as president was to Brussels, the EU's seat of power, not Moscow. He is said to dislike Vladimir Putin, and may dream of being hailed, and remembered, as the man who moved Ukraine into Europe. Joining the CU will reduce him to a Russian satrap -- or, as one Kiev-based diplomat put it, the governor of a Russian province. While some Ukrainian oligarchs have extensive business ties to Russia, others worry that their Russian counterparts will gobble them up if Ukraine joins the CU. Those calling the shots in Ukraine these days may not be democrats, but they're not dumb.

The DCFTA discussions could easily run aground, or raise unrealistic hopes even if they succeed. If Tymoshenko is jailed after a kangaroo court proceeding, there's bound to be blowback from the EU, and that could delay, even derail, the agreement. Moreover, many of the items that appear on Ukrainians' wish list for the DCFTA -- visa-free travel to EU countries, for example -- won't happen anytime soon, and could lead to disappointment. For now, though, Ukrainian officials and senior EU diplomats insist that the DCFTA will be signed by year's end.

One big question remains: How will Russia react to what is undoubtedly a signal strategic choice by Ukraine to integrate with Europe? Moscow has been pleased with Yanukovich's changes so far, welcoming the replacement of the anti-Russian Orange team and making signs that it hopes to draw Ukraine closer. Metropolitan Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, is the most frequent high-level visitor to Ukraine; he favors a pan-Slavic community that accepts Russia as its leader and Orthodox Christianity as it faith.

Russia's political influence and economic presence in Ukraine -- a neighboring country to which it has centuries-long cultural and religious ties, and that contains 7 million ethnic Russians -- will surely diminish if Ukraine joins the DCFTA. A case in point: The DCFTA's regulations will create major barriers that stymie Russia's long-standing efforts to acquire the Ukrainian state energy and pipeline company, Naftohaz Ukrainy. Yet Moscow has shown that it has various means to turn the heat up -- or down, by cutting off crucial natural gas supplies -- when dealing with uppity neighbors.

The negotiations under way between Ukraine and the EU demonstrate that "democracy under duress" is not the only headline Ukraine offers these days. The country is making a choice that will shape its future trajectory -- and Europe's as well. Just as Americans now say that it took Nixon to go to China, Ukrainians may someday admit that it took Yanukovich to go to Brussels.