Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Boycott Outcomes

So we've been talking about Naomi Klein's push to boycott Israel. And specifically, the possible results. But of course, there are several possible results, and nobody really knows which one of them will come true (though some seem far more likely than others). So I thought I'd run through several of the scenarios I see and their likely upshots. I'll reiterate that, as per Klein own argument, I'm only measuring from a consequentialist standpoint: "Will it work?" Other factors, like "it makes me feel like I'm making a difference" don't really play into this analysis.

Scenario 1: Klein's proposal doesn't get much traction it. It stays limited to the usual relatively-fringe suspects, and doesn't rise to a level that really captures the attention of the Israeli government or populace. But obviously, it still gets hotly debated in the blogosphere. For the most part, this is a pretty neutral outcome, but not entirely: It's a waste of energies that better could be directed elsewhere -- from the boycott promoters, but also from the bodies dedicated to opposing the boycott. Engage, I'm sure, would be far happier if it could devote its time to proactive pro-peace organizing, rather than playing defense against Klein and Co.. This is probably the most likely outcome.

Scenario 2: Klein's campaign gains enough traction to get on the Israeli radar and make them take notice, but not enough to actual coerce them into making any particular changes. Israelis respond with anger and mistrust -- foregrounding their fears that the entire world is against them and they can only rely on themselves. They disengage from negotiations and discount world opinion to an even greater degree than before. This, obviously, further enflames the boycotters, who feel vindicated in believing that Israel is unapproachable and that coercion is the only viable response. Seeing that BDS didn't have the desired effects, they boycotters may align with more radical elements still, but even if they don't, there is still a dramatic net increase in polarization and mistrust. The cycle of conflict is entrenched even deeper. I think this is the second most likely outcome.

Scenario 3: Klein's campaign gains serious momentum and forces the Israeli government to make tough choices. Once it becomes clear that the BDS campaign isn't a fad, the brief surge in right-wing sentiment collapses in favor of a consensus to negotiate. The negotiations rapidly lead to a two-state solution based around 1967 borders, with maybe a few adjustments, and a consensus over Jerusalem, territorial congruity, security agreements, and mutual recognition. Refugees are paid compensation and resettled in the new Palestine. Israel's neighbors make good on their commitments and quickly sign peace treaties. Everyone congratulates each other and goes home, problem solved. This is the ideal that Klein is presumably hoping for.

Scenario 4: Klein's campaign gains serious momentum and forces the Israeli government to make tough choices. A weakened Israeli government tries to negotiate, but the Hamas-led Palestinian government seizes the opportunity to up their demands to include resettlement of refugees in Israel proper, recognition of Israel as a fundamental part of the Muslim world, and the holding of Ahmadinejad's "regional referendum" to decide the ultimate resolution of the conflict. Israel refuses, believing that the result of the referendum is likely "no Israel", and negotiations stall. The BDS movement fractures as its supporters squabble over whether Hamas pushed too far, and the upshot is essentially the same as Scenario 2, if not worse.

Scenario 5: Starts like S3 -- Israel begins negotiations with a Fatah-led Palestinian government and comes out with an agreement largely along the lines outlined in S3. However, more radical elements in the Palestinian government refuse to accept it, making demands more akin to S4 (I don't mean to discount the possibility that such an agreement would be vitriolically opposed by certain Israeli elements too, but there isn't a history of civil war over governmental decisions in Israel, and there is in Palestine). Armed skirmishes continue, and Israel argues that either Palestinians weren't negotiating in good faith, or can't deliver on their promises. Depending on how the timeline plays out, this might still result in the creation of a Palestinian state -- just one in an extremely tense relationship with Israel -- and that may well be characterized as a net benefit compared to a non-independent Palestine which is in an extremely tense relationship with Israel. Or it might come before the state is established, and we're back to square one. The BDS campaign has its own debate as to who is at fault for the collapse of the deal, and whether or not the "radical" demands are worthy of their own support -- it is quite possible that they continue to support the boycott and throw their support behind more radical alternatives.

Scenario 6 (or 5b): Also starts like S3. Like in S5, a large chunk of Palestinian society continues to assert more radical demands, and a significant sector of the BDS movement agrees. The BDS mandate expands beyond ending the occupation to more radical critiques of Israeli society. They demand an abandonment of Israel's "racist" character as a Jewish state, full "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, and a unitary "one state" solution. Though a portion of the campaign peels off, refusing to endorse the extension, folks like Klein discover that they are minorities in their own campaign, that they can't put the monster back in its cage, and in fact the new "radical" demands are accepted by the majority of their own movement. Already weakened by past concessions, and faced with a newly invigorated anti-Israel movement with broad popular support attained through the popularity of the original BDS sensing ultimate victory, Israel accedes to a unitary solution and its Jewish character is "democratically" dissolved. I should write that while I consider this a "bad" outcome on face, there are some particular risks to this outcome -- e.g., massive retaliatory political violence, an Islamist government repatriates the (European?) Jews back to Europe, or even just the establishment of Islamic theocratic law (of varying degrees of orthodoxy) upon the Jewish now-minority.

There are obviously more permutations then those I've written, and you can blend many of the elements of the various scenarios I've separated. I'll just make two general observations. First, I'll note that I see only two positive outcomes: S3 and arguably S5. S3 is clearly what I gather BDS supporters are banking on. It is what I have described as a "nothing but net" shot -- everybody has to play their roles perfectly for it to work out. The BDS movement has to attain critical mass -- but without relying in any significant way upon those who wouldn't be satisfied with merely an end to the Occupation. The Palestinian government must likewise be willing and able to refrain from seizing the initiative and trying to extract additional concessions on issues like refugee right of return. The movement can't spark the development of greater "strong" anti-Israel sentiment (i.e., "Israel shouldn't exist at all"). This is possible -- but it is hardly guaranteed, and involves nailing a bunch of die rolls in a row.

S5 might be a net positive over the status quo, depending on how it specifically plays out, but it comes with major credibility costs of its own. Even if I could be guaranteed that S5 was the way BDS would play out, my intuition is that alternative paths towards peace, such as those pursued by J Street or Engage, are likely to provide superior benefits, and thus I would be disinclined to render my support.

Second, I'll reiterate that I think that Scenarios 1 and 2 are considerably more likely than any of the alternatives, and neither holds an appetizing result (1 being merely unproductive, 2 being actively destructive). This a reasonable assumption, if for no other reason that it is hard to build massive global social movements, and all else being equal it is more likely than not that the movement will fail to get off the ground or fail to achieve critical mass. So proponents of Klein's BDS have to either (a) demonstrate conclusively that they'll pass the threshold so that the debate is between Scenarios 3-6, or (b) explain why a BDS movement that does not reach that critical mass won't result in the outcomes I predict. A "failed" attempt at a BDS comes with costs too, possibly severe costs, so our debate on whether or not to support it can't fiat success. So while we can debate the relative likelihoods of our four "success" scenarios, at some level it is akin to debating which lottery game comes with the best odds. As it happens, I think even the "success" scenarios are more likely to result in negative outcomes (if I was to rank them in order of likelihood, I'd say 5,4,3,6 -- and I think it is very likely that a sizable chunk of a large-scale BDS movement would throw itself behind Palestinian demands significantly more radical than "end the occupation"), but that ranks pretty low on what I hope the takeaway of this post is.

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