What Ireland‘s Boycott Bill Means For Israel

Jerusalem‘s principal reaction to a vote by Ireland‘s Senate to criminalize the import and distribution of Israeli products manufactured in the post-1967 territories was encapsulated by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who in response unabashedly called for the shuttering of the embassy in Dublin.

While the suggestion was perhaps an exaggerated attempt to satisfy the more hardliner components of his base, Liberman‘s position nevertheless correlates with the sentiments of much of the Israeli political spectrum; that is, a lot of outrage with a subtle amount of fear mixed in. In fact, following the vote Ireland‘s by the Foreign Ministry for a "dressing down."

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The bill in question, which must be approved by Ireland‘s lower house of parliament before becoming law, prohibits “the import and sales of goods, services and natural resources originating in in occupied [Palestinian] territories.” The offense would be punishable by up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of 250,000 euros.

Notably, the legislation is opposed by the Irish government (albeit primarily on legal grounds as, according to many interpretations, Ireland cannot bar goods available elsewhere in the European Union), but nonetheless passed on the strength of support from the opposition and independents.

That said, exactly one year ago Irish President Michael Higgins on the sidelines of a conference met with Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the pro-Palestinian “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) movement, a decision that drew Jerusalem‘s ire and is representative of what many view as Dublin‘s over-riding anti-Israel predisposition.

The Irish initiative came one month after Valencia, Spain‘s third-largest city, passed a resolution to boycott the Jewish state, in the process declaring itself an "Israeli apartheid-free zone." Thereafter, the leader of Spain‘s leftist Podemos party—which in the 2015 general elections won 20 percent of the vote and whose local faction promoted the boycott motion—called Israel a "criminal country" in a televised interview.

Valencia took this step despite Spanish courts having previously struck down more than a dozen similar municipal decisions to adopt BDS practices, whereas numerous other legislative pushes to this effect have been suspended or altogether abandoned in the face of legal action.

Nevertheless, analysts note that the political climate in Spain is liable to become even more hostile to Israel following the fall in June of Mariano Rajoy‘s government, which was brought down by a no-confidence measure introduced by the Spanish Socialist Workers‘ Party, the second-largest parliamentary body, and Podemos.

All of this comes against the backdrop of the European Union‘s decision three years ago to publish guidelines informing member states how to prevent goods produced in Jewish communities the West Bank—including the eastern part of Jerusalem—and the Golan Heights as being labeled as "made in Israel." These products, which are excluded from the Israel-EU free trade agreement, have since 2003 been "marked" with a special numerical code indicating their place of origin is outside of Israel‘s recognized international borders.

There appears, then, to be a strong undercurrent in Europe pulling constituencies towards a boycott of the Jewish state. The question, now, is whether a tipping point is approaching whereby the spigot of trade is shut-off by the European Union, Israel‘s largest and most important economic partner.

According to Daniel Shek, a former Israeli ambassador to France, "no critical mass has been reached, as in most European countries there is no push for a boycott [of the Jewish state]. And even in Ireland it is not a done deal. Plus, Ireland is a particularly difficult EU country for Israel."

In this respect, bilateral ties have historically been chilly, with Ireland only extending de jure recognition to Israel in 1963. Whereas formal diplomatic relations were established over a decade later, the Israeli Embassy in Dublin was not opened until the mid-1990s. In recent memory, there have been numerous controversies, including the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat from Ireland following the revelation that the Mossad used forged Irish passports during its botched 2010 assassination of a senior Hamas commander in Dubai. Less than a year later, Israel responded furiously when the Irish government upgraded the Palestinian mission in Dublin to an embassy.

"There is nevertheless a trend," Amb. Shek explained to The Media Line, "to use economic pressure on Israel in a variety of ways, some of which are European-wide such as differentiating between products produced in sovereign Israel and outside its [accepted] territories. As long as the political situation regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the same, this will not change."

In Amb. Shek‘s estimation, one of the keys for Israel to effectively counter the BDS movement is to distinguish between government initiatives and those promoted by fringe groups. "It is one thing to push back against [official] legislation, which Israel should do and is part of the natural dialogue between countries. It is something else to combat against the efforts of marginal NGOs. Israel may be overdoing it in this respect and giving legitimacy to those that would otherwise have little impact. We must be intelligent in our approach, as the biggest success of BDS [to date] is that it has driven Israeli leaders crazy."

Fiamma Nirenstein, a former member of the Italian parliament and currently a Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, considers the boycott movement more of a threat due to what she defines as troublesome constituent elements. "On the one hand, BDS is viewed as a way of attacking Israel without being accused of extremism, so in this sense it is a great invention by the Palestinians. On the other hand," she expounded to The Media Line, "the program is connected to the worst anti-Semitic organizations, including terrorist ones."

Nirenstein further highlighted the danger associated with the potential blurring of boundaries. "Boycotting commerce outside of the [1967 borders] interferes with business conducted inside of them, including banking, insurance, etc… So there is a fine line between calling for a boycott of products in [the territories] and advocating for a [blanket] ban of the Jewish state."

As regards the EU, specifically, she considers the body the "mother of the BDS, as it is globalist, anti-religious and totally devoted to the idea of peace whatever the cost may be. By contrast, Israel is a nation-state with religions undertones that must constantly defend itself and Europe cannot forgive that. I do not think that Israel can do anything to change this attitude."

Somewhat paradoxically, though, the law itself is a critical barrier to the implementation of European boycotts on Israeli goods. As noted by numerous economists, should the Irish bill be passed, U.S. companies, for example, might be forced to end their operations in Ireland as American firms are legally prohibited from participating in foreign economic bans not sanctioned by Washington. Such an eventuality would, in turn, render an estimated 150,000 people in Ireland jobless. And the same holds true across the continent, the potential negative ramifications of which have been made evident by ongoing European efforts to negotiate around renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Aside from the legal, economic and moral implications, there is also the long-touted political norm against taking action that could "pre-judge" the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Increasingly, European countries seem to comprehend that applying uni-directional pressure on Israel is not a recipe for peace, but, rather, serves to push both sides further away from the negotiating table.

Indeed, critics of BDS the movement note its overall limited realization of its raison d‘etre to damage the Jewish state diplomatically and financially. Nevertheless, most analysts agree that cases such as the Irish Senate legislation require a fervent Israeli defense, if not measured offensive. Such instances are, in the eyes of Jerusalem and its proponents, more than much ado about nothing, even if the economic sky is not liable to fall.