Would sanctions bring sanity to Israel?

The common wisdom is that, barring an unlikely turnaround in the moribund peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, 2014 will be a year of increasing sanctions and boycotts aimed at Israel.

Next year, commentators are saying, could be the year in which the international community finally grows fed up with Israel and establishes a sanctions regime similar to that applied against South African apartheid in the Seventies and Eighties.

It’s not a far-fetched scenario. Over the past few weeks several organizations and countries have taken clear steps in that direction – the American Studies Association announced a boycott of Israeli academic institutions; the Romanian government said it would not send any more construction workers to Israel; the largest Dutch water company, Vitens, severed ties with its Israeli counterpart Mekorot; Canada’s largest Protestant church announced a boycott of three Israeli companies and a U.S. student group announced plans to boycott a graduation ceremony featuring an address by Israeli businesswoman Sheri Arison.

None of which will bring down the Israeli government, of course, but they do seem to indicate a growing sense of disenchantment with Israel, which could conceivably snowball into an apartheid-like boycott and disinvestment campaign.

As to the efficacy of such a campaign, liberal commentators have pointed to the role of sanctions in bringing Iran to the negotiating table in Geneva. Israel may have rejected the framework agreement with Iran, but it was quick to take credit for the role played by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in tightening the sanctions screws to the extent that Iran was forced to negotiate. Sanctions work, as Israel itself has said.

Few would argue that the sanctions against Iran have been an extremely potent weapon. Sanctions may not work in every circumstance and they rely to a large extent on complementary developments in the sanctioned country, but large-scale sanctions that have governmental support can wreak havoc on a national economy and persuade an intransigent regime to rethink its policies.

For former South African FW De Klerk, the two key factors that brought about the end of apartheid in his country were demographic developments – “the millions of peace-loving people moving to our cities and becoming part of our economy” – and a “fundamental change of heart.” He described the latter as the “realization of the futility of ongoing conflict, of acknowledgement of failed policies and the injustice it brought with it.”

I’m not aware of any definitive study on the effect of the sanctions on those two factors, but it’s probably fair to assume that they exacerbated the economic difficulties that South Africa was already facing in coping with the influx into the cities and the crippling expense of maintaining the apartheid infrastructure. One effect of keeping the bulk of the population in penury was that South Africa had a very small tax base. Not even the revenues from gold could make up for the shortfall. By the time apartheid ended, South Africa was broke.

As for the change of mind, there’s no doubt that the sports and cultural boycotts and travel restrictions had a deprecating effect on the white South African ego. Banishment from international rugby, in particular, was a bitter blow to the small and isolated Afrikaner nation that relied on its rugby prowess for much of its international credit. The prospect of coming in from the cold may not have catalyzed the change of mind, but it certainly reinforced it.

Israel does not face the same demographic challenge as South Africa and nor are there many signs of a change of mind. But Israel in 2013 is a different place from South Africa in 1984. Israelis travel widely (in South Africa it was only a very small proportion of the population that travelled) and like to regard themselves as cosmopolitan. The country’s high-tech industry, the pride of Israel, would simply not exist were it not for foreign markets and easy access to them. Isolation from the rest of the world, both in terms of commerce and personal travel, could be devastating. However disheartening the personal restriction were for South Africans, they could prove to be crushing for Israelis.

But there have also been developments during the past 20 years that operate in Israel’s favor. Key among them is the rise of south-east Asia as an economic powerhouse. The defining characteristic of this new economic bloc is that its members, particularly China, are disinterested in the human rights records of those they trade with. Even if the US and Europe were to impose sanctions on Israel, there would be far less finicky consumers and corporate partners in the east. Not that it wouldn’t take a painful realignment of focus in Israel, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that western sanctions would leave Israel without options. There are and will be options.

A recent statement by Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, that Israel should look beyond the US and Europe for its allies indicates that that at least some members of the government are aware of the options. And Lieberman was not talking specifically about China; he sees potential new alliances in the region of his birth – the former states of the Soviet Union. Given the hardball that Russia’s amoral tsar Vladimir Putin is playing with Europe over the Ukraine, it’s easy to imagine him picking up some of the slack if the west was to give Israel the cold shoulder.

And beyond China and Russia, there are other potential partners, including Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates. It’s difficult to see them publicly lining up behind Israel in the absence of a solution to the Palestinian problem, but trade and assistance do not have to be conducted publicly. Israel and the Gulf states have  a lot in common when it comes to regional geo-political issues, such as the ambitions of Iran and the fear of radical Islam. Saudi Arabia would never say it openly, but Israel provides a decent bulwark against the Arab Spring. There’s room there to do business.

Personally I support sanctions against Israel, if only to get across the message that colonial occupation and western civilization are not compatible. But I don’t kid myself that they will necessarily bring the country to its knees. Israel will survive western sanctions, even if they result in a realignment of Israel’s global partnerships in ways that we can barely imagine right now.