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Boycott Israel? Not so simple

Dina Ezzat
Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 April 2002
Issue No.581

Slamming Israel with an Arab boycott is not quite as straightforward as some might think.

"The Council of Arab Foreign Ministers has decided to implement the relevant paragraphs of the final communiqué of the Beirut Summit concerning the suspension of establishing any relations with Israel, in view of the setbacks to the peace process...[It has also decided to] reactivate the Arab Bureau for the Boycott of Israel, until such time as Israel responds by implementing resolutions of international legitimacy, honouring the terms of reference of the Madrid Peace Conference and withdrawing from occupied Arab territories to the 4 June 1967 boundaries."

So reads article six of the communiqué adopted last Saturday by Arab foreign ministers during an extraordinary session of the Arab League devoted to examining how best to answer Israel's reoccupation of the Palestinian territories.

Theoretically, the Arab Bureau for the Boycott of Israel is supposed to examine those "relevant paragraphs," (as well as other similar language adopted during the Beirut Summit and last month's meeting of the Arab Council of Foreign Ministers), and put its resolutions into practice when it meets later this month at its Damascus headquarters.

But in fact, little concrete action is likely.

"Boycotting Israel is something that we talk about and include in our official documents but it is not something that we actually carry out -- at least not in most Arab states," commented one Arab official.

His statement is revealing. Talk of reviving an Arab economic boycott of Israel has featured in every communiqué emanating from Arab meetings since the 2000 Cairo Arab Summit convened in the wake of the Intifada. Since then, however, rhetoric has outstripped reality. Indeed, the only meeting of the Damascus-based Arab Bureau for the Boycott of Israel yet to take place (in October 2001) since then was marked by the absence of three Arab countries. Egypt and Jordan excused themselves on the basis of their peace agreements with Israel, while Mauritania decided to miss the meeting with the gnomic comment that it found its relations with Israel "particularly helpful to the Palestinian cause."

The April meeting is unlikely to be any different. Like the October meeting, it will focus solely on "operational logistics" rather than invoking the terms of boycott against Israel.

One reason for the bureau's impotence is the lack of political will on the part of most Arab states for a boycott of Israel. "Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Iraq are the only countries that are in favour. The remainder of the Arab League's 22 members are actually opposed to the idea. They see it as a non-starter," commented an Arab source. He added, "It is not only Egypt and Jordan (who are bound by peace treaties with Israel)."

The other countries also oppose changes in policy that might negatively affect their wider economic interests, whether in relation to the oil industry or financial aid.

Another equally important reason why the boycott bureau is so ineffectual is its lack of a comprehensive database listing which firms do business with which countries.

In theory, there are three degrees of possible boycott. Under the remit of the first and easiest, direct cooperation between an Arab company and an Israeli company is outlawed. "That is the simple one. Most Arab countries, other than Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania, would say that they have no direct cooperation with Israeli companies," commented an Arab diplomat.

The second and third degrees of boycott are less straightforward. They prohibit an Arab company cooperating with an Israeli company through a third party, or an Arab company cooperating with any foreign company that also does business with an Israeli firm.

"Now who can imagine that Saudi Arabia, for example, will sever its ties with major American oil companies just because those companies have ties with Israel? This would be totally unrealistic," commented a diplomatic source.

Moreover, boycotting Israel is something the US disapproves of utterly, the source said. Upsetting Washington is something that almost every Arab state wants to avoid.

"Last year, there was a move to boycott a big US cosmetics company because its owner was linked to Israel's settlement activities. This move was clearly suspended after US pressure," commented an informed source.

Nor is the practical task of identifying suitable targets for second or third degree boycott anywhere near complete. Given the complicated measures and criteria involved in deciding the origin of many products it is next to impossible to know what is and what is not a product originally sourced from Israel. Israel, for example, may sell raw plant fertiliser to Europe. There, the fertiliser is stamped as being of European origin, having been processed and packed there. So, for an Arab country to boycott that particular brand of plant fertiliser it would need to have accurate information on the entire inventory chain, which would be no mean feat.

In the absence, then, of complete lists specifying which companies fall under the remit of the second or third degrees of boycott, talk of a serious, concerted Arab effort is unrealistic, even if that effort were to exclude those countries that have direct economic ties with Israel.

Compiling complete boycott lists is, of course, where the Arab Bureau for the Boycott of Israel could be of most use. It could carry out investigations by cooperating with Arab League diplomatic missions overseas, and the embassies of the Arab states in all non-Arab capitals.

"But this has not been happening at all for many, many years, and there is no reason why anyone should assume that any effort will be made on this front now," commented an Arab League source. He added, "In fact, the secretariat of the Arab League has not issued directives to its missions to pursue this effort since we only know too well the stance of most of the Arab states on this matter."

A final cause of Arab misgiving is that boycotting Israel may cause a counter- reaction in the West. Some Western countries must, by law, impose economic sanctions on countries that boycott Israel. This would entail serious difficulties for any Arab country that wants to boycott Israel yet remains keen to export to wealthy Western countries, or receive financial aid from their governments.

"As a matter of fact, we do not know exactly how far we can apply a boycott and what economic consequences it would entail for Arab economies. There has been no comprehensive study that deals with this issue either on the part of governments or non-governmental organisations," commented an Arab diplomat. He added, "The fact that this study has not been done, nor even assigned, is clear evidence that we are not really serious about planning a boycott."

The Arab diplomats and officials willing to admit this are not few. "This is the way things are, but public opinion refuses to accept it. That is why we have to have this language in the documents coming out of our meetings," said one diplomat. But the fact of the matter is, he said, that it is up to the people to boycott Israeli products wherever they can identify them.

That may be easier said than done. In Arab countries, where the origin of a product is not always specified, its true source may be shrouded in mystery.

"Our government should tell us. We want the government to print in the papers the full lists of Israeli products," commented one housewife.

But this, Egyptian officials argue, could be construed as flying in the face of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

And even if a government, in Egypt for example, decided to print such a list, more mundane concerns may finally determine whether a particular product would be blacklisted or not.

"Of course, I would boycott. I should feel ashamed of myself if I did not," said one Cairo taxi driver.

But another disagreed. "No. Everything is so expensive. If I can find something cheaper than the rest I will buy it, no matter who it is made by," he said.


Ghosts of boycotts past


ARAB COUNTRIES first used economic boycotts against Israel's economy over 50 years ago. Dina Ezzat looks back.

The idea of an Arab boycott of Israeli products first saw the light of day in 1951. For over two decades following that date, Arab governments wielded the boycott as an effective political and economic weapon against their regional neighbour. Then, in 1979, Egypt broke ranks and signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state. The remaining Arab countries continued to observe the terms of the boycott until the 1991 Madrid peace conference, when talk of boycott was replaced by talk of Arab-Israeli regional cooperation. During the following decade, the Arab Bureau for the Boycott of Israel met only once, inconclusively and briefly, in 1993.

Fast-forward to today, and the new globalised economic order has made boycotting Israel's economy far more problematic than once it was (see main feature). Which is why, during a period of seething tension between the Arab states and Israel, the old weapon, both as concept and practice, is failing to muster the strength it had in the bygone days of the 1950s and 1960s.