Israel’s meltdown

Ian Black
IAN BLACK

Jokes and puns about the ice-cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s decision to boycott the settlements in Israel-occupied Palestinian territories were fairly predictable. “Meltdown” was used to describe the angry reaction in Israel, while pictures of freezers bearing the world-famous brand name and labelled “terrorist propaganda” proliferated on social media. Israel’s meltdown

Israel’s economy minister made a video of herself binning the container of B&J chocolate ice cream that she had in her freezer – tossing the tub! An outraged article condemning the move in Time Magazine was entitled “Double scoops and double standards” under the Twitter hashtag #BenAndJerrys Bigotry. One of the many organisations that welcomed the move issued a statement entitled: “Justice tastes better than complicity.”

Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, warned that the decision will have “serious consequences” for the Vermont-based ice-cream maker and its parent company, Unilever. He expressed grave concern at their decision to “boycott Israel,” despite the fact that the company clearly stated that it was not doing so. “There are many brands of ice cream,” Bennett said. “But we only have one country.”

The announcement from Ben & Jerry’s, which has taken political stances on climate change and social justice issues such as Black Lives Matter, is one of the highest-profile rebukes of Israeli settlement building to date by a well-known brand.

Around 700,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. which were captured by Israel during the 1967 war, and are regarded by most of the international community as illegal and a major barrier to a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

The fear of Bennett’s government is that other international companies might follow Ben & Jerry’s lead under mounting pressure from the BDS movement – a Palestinian-led initiative advocating boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israeli institutions and businesses.

Still, the ice-cream company is not alone in taking a principled stand. Norway’s largest pension fund announced this month it had divested assets in 16 companies that work in the West Bank, including the telecom equipment giant Motorola, while the owner of the McDonald’s Israeli franchise has refused to venture into settlement communities.

Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, called the decision “a shameful capitulation to antisemitism” and pledged to raise the issue with the more than 30 states that have legislation against BDS.  Israel’s former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, tweeted cheekily: “Now we Israelis know which ice cream NOT to buy.”

BDS itself applauded the move as “a decisive step towards ending the company’s complicity in Israel’s occupation and violations of Palestinian rights”, but still called on it to do more. “We hope that Ben & Jerry’s has understood that, in harnsmony with its social justice commitments, there can be no business as usual with apartheid Israel,” it added.

Ben & Jerry’s decision, however, was only about the occupied territories, not Israel within its pre-1967 borders, suggesting the company supports a two-state solution – which, in theory at least, is still the only achievable outcome. Otherwise it remains business as usual – for the moment at least.

Reactions to such a sensitive and controversial issue were very strong, not to say hysterical. But there was no parallel anger amongst Israelis about another, sensationally bigger story last week – about the role of the Israel cyber company NSO in surveilling journalists, as part of an international investigation led by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and covered by multiple western news organizations.

It revealed 180 cases around the world in which NSO’s clients wanted to target journalists, political opponents and human rights activists with Pegasus spyware, which allows law enforcement authorities to hack into cellphones, copy their contents and sometimes to control their camera and audio recording capabilities.

The company’s customers include the governments of Azerbaijan, Hungary, India , Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – all countries which have improved their relations with Israel in recent times, especially during Netanyahu’s 12 years in office.

Israel’s expertise in cybertechnology has long been source of pride in what the country’s admirers call the “start-up nation.” But these latest revelations have damaged that positive image by portraying their achievements as in the service of what one newspaper headline described as the “world’s bad guys.” An important additional factor is that most cyber-experts are graduates of the Israel army’s elite intelligence units.

In reality, Israel’s security establishment is often an active partner in making these lucrative deals with foreign governments and has an obvious interest in making sure they succeed, often serving as the initial contact between the parties. What remains unclear is whether the government was asked to approve NSO’s client list or even specific targets  “Such actions,” as one Israeli commentator warned, “cast a shadow over all the country’s citizens.”

Cyberwarfare is part of the landscape of the 21st century. Many people reacted dismissively to the NSO revelations, arguing that any state would act similarly. But attitudes to Israel – in the Middle East and beyond – are only likely to improve if Bennett’s government focuses on the Palestinians, who are certainly not going to disappear. And Ben & Jerry’s decision was both a sweet and sour reminder of that inescapable fact. levant

by: IAN BLACK levant

IAN BLACK