JERUSALEM — Could Israel face a mounting global boycott of the type that ended apartheid in South Africa if it fails to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians by this spring?
Some liberal Israeli commentators have been sounding such warnings, and the outgoing European Union (EU) envoy to the Middle East said Thursday that support in Europe for sanctioning Israel over its settlement policies could gain steam if talks collapse.
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Israeli officials have been downplaying any potential repercussions, and this week the European Union dangled unprecedented incentives before Israelis and Palestinians to nudge them toward a deal.
But Palestinian grassroots activists and their foreign supporters say an international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions — or BDS — against Israel is gaining momentum.
They point to recent successes, such as a decision this week by the American Studies Association, a group representing more than 3,800 U.S. scholars, to boycott Israeli academic institutions, though not individual Israeli colleagues.
Some activists say the death of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela earlier this month also invited comparisons between international anti-apartheid boycotts two decades ago and similar efforts now to pressure Israel to end its occupation of lands the Palestinians want for their state.
The BDS successes have been largely symbolic, and their impact on Israel’s robust economy has so far been negligible.
Israeli government officials have either dismissed the BDS campaign as ineffective or portrayed it as an attempt with strong anti-Semitic overtones to delegitimize the Jewish state.
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, denounced the boycott decision of the U.S. scholars as a “travesty,” saying this week that “singling out of the Jewish state for boycott is no different than the many attempts throughout history to single out Jews and hold them to a different standard.”
While talk of boycott has unleashed strong emotions in Israel, government officials have been watching Europe’s more strident stance on Israeli settlements with greater concern.
Some 550,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967 along with the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians want a state in those lands and say Israel’s settlement building which only accelerated during the negotiations is jeopardizing the talks and pre-empting their outcome.
The EU has reiterated in recent months that it considers all settlements illegal and has taken steps to bring its actions more in line with its stated positions.
Europe has imposed a funding ban on Israeli research projects in the occupied territories that goes into effect next month.
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Earlier this week, EU diplomats warned Israel against new settlement announcements, saying that if negotiations collapse as a result, Israel would be held accountable.
The U.S.-led negotiations resumed in late July, after a five-year diplomatic impasse, and are to last for at least nine months.
On Wednesday, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, for the first time raised the possibility of an extension. He said that if the two sides reach a framework agreement on all main issues by the end of April, the Palestinians would be prepared negotiate for up to a year to work out the details of a comprehensive deal.
Previously, the Palestinians had said they reserve the right to walk away from the negotiations after nine months and explore other options, such as seeking wider international recognition.
The outgoing EU envoy to the Middle East, Andreas Reinicke, said in a phone interview from Brussels on Thursday that he believes a deal is possible and that the two sides “are starting to bridge the first gaps.”
Before the resumption of talks, the EU was discussing possible EU-wide recommendations on labeling Israeli settlement products, he said. Labeling could enable consumers to decide if they want to boycott such goods.
Reinicke said that when he started in his post in February 2012, only two of 28 EU member states supported the idea of labeling. Now, 14 states are in favor, he said. “There is movement in this direction,” he added.
“I think there is a general understanding among all 28 states that settlements are illegal under international law as long as there is no agreement on the border” between Israel and a state of Palestine, he said.
The discussions on labeling have been put on hold for now because Europe is working closely with Secretary of State John Kerry to support the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, said Reinicke, who leaves his post at the end of December.
Hoping to prod the sides, EU diplomats promised earlier this week that Israel and a future Palestine would win unprecedented access to the EU in new partnership agreements if they strike a peace deal.
In Israel, the aftermath of Mandela’s death and the recent BDS successes have sparked a domestic “boycott debate.”
Shmuel Inbar, a Middle East analyst, said Israel isn’t facing a serious threat.
“I don’t think that five months from now, the key issue on the international agenda is to start to go on a crusade for boycotting Israel,” he said. He said Europeans will realize “that they have much bigger problems to attend to.”
However, several liberal commentators said Israel must heed the warning signs.
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“For various reasons, the Western governments have turned a blind eye to the Israeli violation of human rights” in the occupied territories up to now, Aviad Kleinberg, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily this week. “They usually make do with feeble condemnations and voicing pious concern for the future of ‘the conflict’.
“It appears as though this policy of turning a blind eye is going to end,” he wrote.
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