John Kerry in Troubled Waters

Great oaks from little acorns grow, and pivotal ruptures develop from misunderstandings. The present misunderstanding between Secretary of State John Kerry and the State of Israel should be clarified before it deteriorates into adversity.

It is regrettable that Secretary of State John Kerry on February 1, 2014 is quoted as having warned Israel in somewhat obscure language that failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians would damage Israel's capacity to be a democratic state. He expressed concern that Israel might lose the particular special character central to it, and was worried that continuing condemnation of Israel could lead to more boycott of Israel.

In a week that witnessed courage and cowardice on the issue of boycott of Israel, Kerry's remarks were less helpful than intended. Courage was displayed by the actress Scarlett Johansson. who resigned from her position as an ambassador of Oxfam International because of a "fundamental difference of opinion" with the international charity organization that opposed all trade with Israeli settlements. Oxfam had cowardly succumbed to pressure from the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Oxfam followed the BDS in exaggerating and distorting Israeli policies, and in holding Israel to a standard different from any other nation.

Equally cowardly in the same week were actions, which may be symbolic or real, by foreign banks. Danske Bank, Denmark's largest bank, announced it was ending ties with Bank Hapoalim, Israel's largest bank, which it said was financing Israeli settlements. Curiously, Bank Hapoalim denies that Danske has any investments with it. The Danske Bank was concerned about "ethical and legal conflicts." The Swedish Nordea Bank, less decisively, asked for "clarifications" of the actions of the Israeli Bank Leumi and the Mizrachi-Tefahot Bank.

No one doubts the eagerness of Secretary Kerry, whether or not it is "obsessive and messianic" or normally diplomatic in pursuing an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement. He is expected to present proposals for a "framework" agreement before the April deadline of the peace talks that began in July. That is why his words on boycott were unfortunate and misleading -- because they may handicap confirmation of the talks.

Kerry is quoted as saying, "The risks are very high for Israel. People are talking about boycott, That will intensify in the case of failure (of the peace talks)... Today's status quo absolutely, to a certainty, cannot be maintained."

After some Israeli leaders expressed their anxiety over his statement, the State Department spokesperson, Jen Psaki, responded that Kerry had been referring to the actions of others and resolutely opposed boycotts.

Whether Kerry was describing the activities of others, or expressing his own view, his words were not helpful for the peace process. However, it serves no purpose to call him anti-Semitic because of what he intended to be warning remarks. Nor can he be criticized, as some Israelis have done, as siding with the foes of Israel, or pointing a gun to Israel's head. Nor can the ongoing boycott be termed "an economic tsunami," another exaggeration.

He can, however, be criticized for not taking a more forthright stand, as Scarlett Johansson did, against the bigotry and bias of those engaging in boycott of Israel, and the expansion of the campaign led by Palestinians, and the resolute haters of Israel and often anti-Semites, for the delegitimization of Israel. One might have expected Kerry to condemn explicitly those engaged in intimidating Israel and those proposing boycotts, whether in symbolic or material form.

It should be stated clearly that these hyperbolical calls for boycott are immoral and unjustified, and result either from acceptance of the false Palestinian narrative of victimhood, that Palestinians are the most oppressed people in the world, or from prejudice, hatred, or anti-Semitism, or simply unthinkingly obedience to fashionable political correctness against Western values. The radical left in particular has been charter members of bigoted correctness.

A striking example of this destructive attitude is Roger Waters, former member of Pink Floyd, who has rebuked Johansson for her arrangement with SodaStream, the Israeli firm making carbonated products that has a large factory in Ma'ale Adumim. He rejected her view that SodaStream , by employing Palestinians who in fact form a majority of workers in the factory, was building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine. SodaStream illustrated that it was every day supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits, and equal rights.

John Kerry might note that the hostility to Israel of Waters, a prominent proponent of the boycott movement, does not stop there. Waters proudly asserts that he will not visit or perform in Israel. He appears equally proud of his statement about Israel that "The parallels with what went on in the 1930s in Germany are so crushingly obvious...the oppression of the Jews... was going on from 1933 until 1946. So this is not a new scenario. Except that this time, it's the Palestinian people being murdered." Equating Israeli policies with those of Nazi Germany suggests that Water's rhetoric and beliefs have been transmuted far beyond mere hatred of Israel's policies.

It is manifest that the boycotters reject the existence of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state and focus on the issue of settlements as an excuse to justify that opposition. Of course differences are, and should be, expressed over the policies of Israel, over Israeli settlements and the issue of the disputed territory in the West Bank. But these differences have to be settled by peaceful negotiation. The BDS has concentrated on these issues and had some success in persuading mainstream moderates and liberals as well as the radical left and anti-Semites that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and that they are illegal and contrary to international law.

In making these assertions, the BDS movement and its supporters are mistaken. Settlements may be a problem but they are not contrary to international law nor are they any kind of obstacle for those genuinely interested in a peace settlement. Concentration on these issues by Palestinian extremists and supporters is not only unhelpful but is counterproductive in the search to find resolution of important issues encompassing land, refugees, and above all security and the acceptance of the State of Israel.

It is incumbent on Secretary Kerry to take the lead in making it clear that the process he is suggesting must be mutual and peaceful. He should unequivocally denounce the BDS movement as harmful to his deeply felt hopes of fostering peace. This should not be done simply through rhetorical or symbolic means, but by concrete action to prevent diplomatic, economic, and perhaps military disaster. Everyone knows that boycotts of Israeli institutions of higher learning are antithetical to values of academic freedom. John Kerry should make known that the BDS movement will not advance the cause of a single Palestinian.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.

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