As Santa Starts Taking Sides, Who Wins from the Decision to Label Settlement Goods?

Carter Vance & Aaron Simons

It would seem that no symbol is too sacred in the propaganda drive that fuels the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Christmas approaches, even Santa is not safe.

Last week, a group of Palestinian protesters clad in Santa suits clashed with Israeli troops in Bethlehem. In a debate where image is everything, the outfits were certainly effective. The Israeli soldiers’ combat gear looked brutish and disproportionate against the frivolity and merriment that the Santa suits symbolise.

Next up to co-opt Christmas was Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer. Santa’s sleigh carried gifts laced with a potent political message this year, as Dermer’s presents to the White House were comprised of gifts produced in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Dermer’s gifts were a riposte to the EU decision to label settlement good as such, and the Obama administration’s decision not to protect Israeli settlement goods from boycotts.

The Israeli government’s response to the EU decision was predictable, and summed up in Dermer’s pithy letter accompanying his gifts. “Today, the Jewish state is singled out and held to a different standard than other countries” Dermer wrote. The charge is one of double-standards, for reasons which are implied, if not outright stated, to be anti-Semitic in nature.

The charge of hypocrisy is not an unjust one; Israel is indeed being singled out. Many other territorial conflicts do not have the same labelling rules applied to them. Yet hasbara commentators use this logic to argue that West Bank products should not be specifically labelled rather than that products from other territories of disputed sovereignty should. Indeed, very little commentary opposing the decision seems to think this decision would be just if only it also had included Nagorno-Karabakh in its purview.

This is because, at its core, the ‘singling out’ argument is one of deflection rather than anything else. Aware that it stands little hope of convincing an international audience, Israel wants to avoid any substantive discussion on the legitimacy of the West Bank settlements, and so resorts to deflective arguments to avoid the debate entirely. In this case, the deflection has largely been successful, not least in part because the accusation of double-standards is an accurate one.

If Israel opposes the labelling decision, it is assumed that the decision plays into the hands of the BDS movement. Indeed, anti-Zionist and BDS activists cheered it as a victory for their movement, even though it was stated by the EU Commission to be a purely technical procedure. The celebrations of the anti-Israel crowd, however, should be understood in light of the decision’s symbolic, rather than strategic, importance.

Anti-Israel activists will cheer anything that riles the Israeli government. Furthermore, given that this decision was interpreted as a weakening of Israel’s international standing, it added further fuel to the BDS bonfire. But beyond images of a flustered Netanyahu and a floundering Israel-US relationship, the strategic outcome of the EU decision is to harden the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories, and emphasise the EU’s commitment to a two-state solution.

Maintaining this distinction runs counter to the BDS movement’s call for a boycott of Israel in its entirety, which it holds as collectively responsible for West Bank settlements.  Similarly, in upholding the principle of the two state solution, this decision runs counter to the aims of a BDS movement which either outwardly advocates a one-state solution or holds an inalienable right of return for Palestinian refugees incompatible with a two state solution. The BDS movement’s claims of agnosticism on the issue of statehood seem weak compared to the iron-clad commitment of its leaders and followers to one state of Palestine from the river to the sea.

The EU decision thus creates the most unlikely of allies.  A conflation of the West Bank with the totality of Israel is usually confined to the anti-Zionist crowd, but in opposing the labelling move, it is being unwittingly embraced those who consider themselves the Jewish state’s staunchest defenders. A continual erasure of the distinction between Israel and the Occupied Territories leads down a pathway to a one-state solution in which the country will either cease to be Jewish or cease to be democratic. In this sense, those who empower the settlers and those who long for the cessation of Israel’s being are each other’s best friends.

Strangely, then, those most empowered by this decision are liberal Zionists. Uncompromising differentiation between green-line Israel (a flawed, but vibrant, democracy) and the parts beyond (zones of military rule and repression) is the essence of this position. This ability to be critical of Israel whilst still upholding its fundamental legitimacy is what distinguishes liberal Zionism from the all too common blanket support of Israel on the one hand, or a total denial of its right to exist on the other.

This decision redraws the green line in the face of the Greater Israel visionaries and BDS movement intent on erasing it. It makes no difference to the BDS boycott call which covers Israel in toto, and reasserts the primacy of the two-state solution over the one-state calls of Barghouti and other BDS leaders. Whilst both the Israeli government and Palestinian protesters may appropriate Santa to their cause, it would appear that the EU has delivered a Christmas gift to liberal Zionists instead.

Zionish wishes everyone a very merry Christmas.