Earlier this month, publicity by the Israeli Peace Bloc generated a flood of letters to Benetton headquarters in Italy protesting plans by the company's Israeli subsidiary to open a plant in the West Bank. Fearful of an economic boycott, the clothes manufacturer backed down and issued a public statement assuring it had nipped the plan in the bud.
This is the latest example of the vitality of boycotts as a classic tool in the political arsenal of the Middle East; understanding them is important in the search for a regional solution. Theirs is a history that is long, endemic, and quick to the draw.
The recent controversy targeting the Disney Millennium exhibit concerning the presentation of Jerusalem is a conspicuous illustration of boycotts focused on the Mideast. It took diplomatic maneuvering at the highest levels before the crisis was defused and Orlando, Fla., was declared safe to remain the nonpartisan sacred cow of mass culture. Not only did the Arabs threaten a boycott of Disney products and parks, but right-wing Israelis indicated that a wishy-washy portrayal of the city's status would predispose them to forgo the Magic Kingdom as well. Befuddled Disney officials protested that they were, after all, merely in the entertainment business. It was a hornet's nest they regretted ever entering.
The Israel Peace Bloc publishes a list of 135 Israeli firms that manufacture in Occupied Territories. As in sneaker factories in Southeast Asia, goods can be made more cheaply on the far side of the "green line." Newspaper notices entreat: "Every shekel for the settlements is a shekel against peace!"
In Israel, it seemed, few knew the list existed, or cared. But then came news that high-profile Benetton, a firm that prides itself on its social consciousness, planned a factory in the West Bank. The move generated a surprisingly strong protest from many Israelis.
Pressure from abroad has been consistently more vocal. Last year Ben & Jerry's in Israel stopped making sherbet with spring water originating in the Golan Heights after protests by American Jewish peace supporters and Arabs. They claimed it reinforced the legitimacy of the Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories. And this summer, there were highly publicized, though unsuccessful, pressures on Burger King to close its franchise in an over-the-green-line- Jerusalem suburb.
Following World War II, numerous Jews shied away from products made in Germany. But the Jewish state itself opted to undermine any organized boycott. In 1952, Israel and Germany signed a treaty whereby hundreds of millions of dollars were provided to buy German equipment and raw materials for Israeli enterprises. These enormous sums were crucial to the new country's struggle to absorb hundreds of thousands of penniless immigrants while creating a new national infrastructure.
The decision didn't come easily. Israel suffered through a bitter confrontation of conscience. Violent street fights erupted; police used tear gas. Decades before he became prime minister, populist opposition leader Menachem Begin led a march storming the Knesset. "If this is permissible in the state of Israel, everything is permissible in the state of Israel!" he raged.
Nevertheless, less than 10 years after the Holocaust, Israel was flooded with German products. Goods hit empty shelves, and rationing disappeared overnight. As for the few holdouts that abstained from German china, cars, or binoculars, their protest hardly dented the German economy.
Whereas this boycott was stymied, another flourished. Beginning even before creation of the Israeli state, the Arab League boycott against Israel was a spectacular success for many decades. High-profile international companies like Coca-Cola were conspicuously absent in Israel. "Made in Japan" stickers couldn't be found in the Holy Land, though some manufacturers entered Israel via unmarked shipments from third countries.
Not until 1977 when US law made boycott participation illegal for American companies did the boycott grip begin to loosen. The peace process seemingly dealt the fatal blow. For example, Jordan passed a bill repealing the boycott within the framework of its 1995 trade treaty with Israel.
But boycotts were more dormant than dead. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze implementation of the Wye agreements last year, calls were heard for a revival.
Boycotts can rally the otherwise disenfranchised whose spending power is the only tool to voice their convictions. Through them, grass-roots movements grow into widespread action with genuine political clout.
On the other hand, boycotts are often a synonym for blackmail. A third party, indifferent to the issue at hand, will choose a side in a boycott depending on what's best for its balance sheet.
In today's world of split-second dissemination of information, boycotts are even more dangerous - enormously powerful when publicized by organized lobbies via global TV and the Internet. The Disney, Ben & Jerry's, Benetton, and Burger King boycott controversies generated passionate proclamations and editorials - alternately denounced as unjustified, rapacious economic pressure, or hailed as steps of conscience. Labeled "devil" or "angel" - it all depended on which side of the fence was talking.
Boycotts are back on center stage. Peace negotiators would be wise not to overlook this old conventional weapon, which still packs a lot of power in the Middle East.
*Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer living in the Tel Aviv area. She writes a column for The Jerusalem Post.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society