When I watched the Super Bowl, I tried to avoid the unpleasant experience of also watching Scarlett Johansson’s shameful ad for SodaStream, but failed. That controversy has been boiling for over a week, and while supporters of Israel’s draconian occupation policies are dancing over Johansson’s decision to stand by SodaStream, the tune they’re dancing to is Nero fiddling while Rome burns. On many levels, the economic pressure on Israel is only gaining momentum, and the Johansson controversy both highlights that and masks some far more important events in this category.
On a personal note, I’m terribly disappointed in Johansson. I’ve enjoyed her work in both serious films like Lost in Translation and Match Point as well as in lighter fare such as her role as the Black Widow in various Marvel Comics adventure movies. I’ll enjoy those less now. Johansson might have been naïve at first about SodaStream, as the Financial Times suggests in their sharp criticism of her stance. But Oxfam International engaged her on this subject before breathing a sigh of relief at her decision to step down as their global ambassador. She knows by now how phony her line about SodaStream “building a bridge between Israel and Palestine” is. She simply chose whatever money and other material benefits she expects to get out of the SodaStream ad over the principle of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and over the excellent international aid work of Oxfam.
What is lost among the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd is how pyrrhic a victory Johansson’s crass selfishness is for them. Her own reaction to the controversy was to lump the SodaStream issue in with the larger Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which targets a wide range of Israeli activities and interests on both sides of the 1967 border. By doing so, they blur the distinction between boycotts against settlements and settlement products (SodaStream has a major manufacturing plant in Mishor Adumim, part of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement bloc, which makes it a target for even progressive Zionist groups like Americans for Peace Now and leaders like Peter Beinart who advocate boycotting settlement products) and boycotts that target Israel proper. The controversy has also led to much greater, and frankly more positive, exposure for the BDS movement as a whole. As right-wing supporters of Israel dance a hora to chants of “#BDSFail,” they fail to realize they are celebrating a victorious battle that is a major setback to their larger war to defend Israel’s occupation and discriminatory policies.
The “ScarJo affair” illuminates some complications with boycotting some settlement businesses. SodaStream provides some of the better jobs available to Palestinians who work there. It’s a classic case of “white man’s burden,” where some of the more liberal members of the powerful party do some good in the larger context of occupation and dispossession. What it demonstrates is not that somehow occupation is benign, but rather that it is impossible, by definition, for the occupier to do right by the occupied.
More importantly, the SodaStream controversy is obscuring much more significant events. I reported recently on the actions of a Dutch financial company that stopped doing business with Israel’s five biggest banks. Now, Denmark’s largest bank has stopped doing all business with Israel’s Bank HaPoalim because of the latter’s funding of settlements.
These are not minor developments, nor the sort of thing that, like the SodaStream issue, can be countered by propaganda and social media activism. There is a message coming to Israel from Europe and its volume is increasing quickly: we have had it with the occupation and we will do what we can to stop it.
While the United States is seen, for good reason, as Israel’s main benefactor, it is Europe, not the US, that is Israel’s largest trading partner. The more that European institutions boycott Israeli businesses over the occupation, the closer Israel gets to the point where every Israeli is going to feel the weight of the occupation in their wallets. And that is going to cause serious political waves.
Israeli business leaders recognize this. They sent a strong message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum in Davos that they want his policy to change toward one that is determined to end the occupation and reach an agreement with the Palestinians so that they don’t face these threats any longer. That was not a one-shot effort. The Israeli business community has launched a public campaign to push for peace.
Right now, the countries Israel is most concerned about in Europe — the UK, Germany, France, Italy — are not yet taking the sorts of steps we are seeing out of Denmark and the Netherlands. But there are strong and increasing pressures in that direction. And for the most part, this is not the result of the global BDS movement, although that movement is certainly impacting the discourse and driving some of the thinking behind these larger moves. But these decisions fundamentally stem from the basic incompatibility between European laws and norms and supporting Israel’s occupation and settlement policies.
The Danish and Dutch moves bring a particularly important point home. Most European businesses and governments want to do business with Israel, but not with the settlements. But because Israeli businesses and, especially, its financial institutions that traverse the 1967 borders cannot, for the most part, be split between the two sides of those borders, it has generally been the case that businesses and governments have been reluctant to take economic measures to avoid doing business with the settlements. That reluctance is now waning, and Israeli business is starting to pay the price for the occupation.
There is a clear solution to this problem for Israel — withdraw from occupied territory and come to an equitable agreement with the Palestinians. That does not seem to be on the horizon, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s best efforts. But Netanyahu, as beholden as he is to the right, cannot ignore the Israeli business community for long. He has it within his power to bring a deal home if he changes the face of his governing coalition. That requires a political boldness he has never even hinted at. But if he refuses to move in that direction and Europe continues on the course it is on, he will be replaced by someone who will.
Mitchell Plitnick is the former Director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and was previously the Director of Education and Policy for Jewish Voice for Peace.