John Kerry Makes a Strong Case for BDS

By Yousef Munayyer

The other night I was happy to participate in a program for Aljazeera America on BDS. The Stream focused on BDS for the entire episode. I was joined by Josh Ruebner, Lara Friedman and Avi Mayer. This is a topic that deserves to be discussed for much longer than half an hour and between commercial breaks and packages, the actual discussion was a fraction of that. Such is life in the world of live TV. Right at the end of the program I was trying to make a point and unfortunately got cut off. Thankfully, we have blogs for that sort of thing.

The question was about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comments on BDS. Here is what John Kerry said:

For Israel, the stakes are also enormously high. Do they want a failure that then begs whatever may come in the form of a response from disappointed Palestinians and the Arab community? What happens to the Arab Peace Initiative if this fails? Does it disappear? What happens for Israel’s capacity to be the Israel it is today – a democratic state with the particular special Jewish character that is a central part of the narrative and of the future? What happens to that when you have a bi-national structure and people demanding rights on different terms?….. I believe that – and you see for Israel there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?

Kerry is basically warning Israel. If this process fails, BDS will grow, there will be more of it, and these will be consequences that will not be good for Israel. Predictably, the Israelis reacted very harshly to this. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu objected and one Israeli cabinet minister said:

Mr. Kerry’s remarks were “hurtful,” “unfair” and “intolerable” and added, “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head.”

If you think about it a bit, this is John Kerry making a very, very effective argument for BDS, whether he knows it or intended it or not.  For years, the United States has cornered the role of mediator in Israeli/Palestinian negotiations for itself. Indeed, the U.S. is Israel’s biggest backer, it prevents the rest of the world from pressuring Israel by using its veto in the UN Security Council and is likely the only country that can exercise the necessary pressure on Israel to get it to change its colonial behavior. I’ve written in the past about how the U.S. needs to get tough with Israel, how U.S. policy has failed and how much of this is a product of U.S. structural and domestic politics.

One of the main reasons BDS became so necessary is precisely because of the failure of the negotiations process to deliver any optimism toward achieving the BDS movement’s goals. With the UN blocked by a U.S. veto and with U.S. mediated negotiations rendered ineffective due to U.S. bias toward Israel, BDS became the next best option. And, the longer the peace process went on and the longer it failed to deliver, the more BDS grew.

In the past, U.S. mediators had displayed some willingness to use U.S. leverage to pressure Israel. James Baker comes to mind, for example. But even this modicum of pressure has disappeared over the past 20 years. The U.S., the only state in a position to use pressure to change Israeli behavior, simply couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. The fact that the U.S. has been rendered so impotent on this issue fuels BDS as more and more people turn away from the facade of negotiations and look for ways to actively work to change the situation, increase the costs of occupation and change Israel’s decision calculus – the very role the U.S. refuses to play.

So here is John Kerry last week, the Secretary of State of the United States, the most powerful nation on earth and Israel’s number one supplier and ally. In trying to convey the importance of a peace deal to Israel, what does he say the consequences of failing to comply would be? A halt to U.S. aid?  Ending U.S.-Israel military cooperation? No longer automatically using a veto to protect Israel in the Security Council? Adding Israel to the a U.S. sanctions list? Nope, none of the above. The consequences would be the growth of a civil society-driven BDS movement.

John Kerry’s good-cop/bad-cop routine with Israel only served to underscore the inability of the United States to use any of its own capacity to change Israeli behavior, making the very point that drives BDS.

And it is clear why the Israelis objected to this approach, not because it supports the argument for BDS (though it does) but because it differs from the narrative about peacemaking they have attempted to set for decades. Israel wants the world to believe that it wants peace, that peace is in its interest and that it is easily achievable if their demands on security are met. But Kerry’s comments start to get at a different narrative, one that says that Israeli intransigence means they need to be pressed into changing their behavior, even if the U.S. isn’t going to be the party to do that.

That is why John Kerry, knowingly or not, actually made a very strong case for BDS (and why I couldn’t finish making this point in 20 seconds)


Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. 

The views in this brief do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.