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Netanyahu and cabinet ministers denounce Kerry's Israel boycott threats

Israeli leaders came out unified and condemning United States Secretary of John Kerry's threats that there will be a global boycott against Israel unless their agree to a peace deal with the Palestinians. Kerry made those remarks on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 at the Munich Security Conference, and on Saturday evening, Feb. 1, and through Sunday, Feb. 2, Israeli leadership, cabinet ministers and Prime Benjamin Netanyahu separately issued statements that all had the same message Israel will not be pressured by Kerry and the US into agreement. Kerry's remarks firmly place any blame on Israel if the peace talks do not lead to an agreement, even though Israel is not the only party negotiating, there are the Palestinians and they have not been flexible throughout the process. If a deal does not result, Kerry is justifying a global boycott on Israel with statements that can be construed that way, however the State Department denied that was his intention.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks about boycotting Israel during his cabinet meeting opening remarks, Feb. 2, 2014
Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Feb.1 threatened Israel that they cannot continue without a peace deal, saying "Today's status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It's not sustainable. It's illusionary. There's a momentary prosperity, there's a momentary peace."

The Secretary of State continued his all or nothing approach mixed with optimism that Israel has to make a peace deal; "I am hopeful and we will keep working on it. I believe in the possibility or I wouldn't pursue this. I don't think we're being quixotic … We're working hard because the consequences of failure are unacceptable."
Kerry warned Israel of the backlash they will face; "For Israel, the stakes are also enormously high. Do they want a failure that then begs whatever may come in the form of a response from disappointed Palestinians and the Arab community?" Continuing Kerry threatened that Israel could lose its "capacity to be the Israel it is today - a democratic state with the particular special Jewish character that is a central part of the narrative and of the future? What happens to that when you have a bi-national structure and people demanding rights on different terms?"

The Secretary of State threatened Israel about both a boycott and increased violence if the country does not make peace with the Palestinians now. Speaking of the boycotts Kerry threatened; "You see for Israel there is an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it, there is talk of boycott and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?" He also revisited his third intifada threat from November asking and warning; "Are we going to then see militancy? Will we then see violence? Will we then see transformation? What comes afterwards? Nobody can answer that question with any kind of comfort…. Last year, not one Israeli was killed by a Palestinian from the West Bank. This year, unfortunately, there's been an uptick in some violence."

Despite a looming coalition crisis earlier in the week between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Economy Minister and Bayit Yehudi Party Chairman Naftali Bennett over differences in tactics regarding the peace negotiations, this time the Israeli cabinet and leadership were unified in opposing Kerry's comments. All questioned the U.S.'s motives as supposed friends and allies of Israel and promised they would not be forced into a peace deal that does not benefit Israel's security first and foremost. This the second time Kerry has threatened Israel about possible repercussions for not making an agreement, in November 2013 he said the talks' failure will result in Israel's isolation and a "third intifada."

Economic Minister and Chairman of the right leaning Bayit Yehudi party Naftali Bennett who has been critical of the peace process and any possible concessions he thinks Netanyahu makes, issued a harsh rebuke, taking to Facebook to condemn Kerry's remarks; "I want to clarify to all those giving advice: a country has yet to be born that will give up its land because of economic threats, and we won't either. Only security will bring financial stability, not a terror state next to the Ben Gurion Airport."

Bennett also questioned the U.S. position as Israel's supposed friend; "We expect our friends in the world to stand by our side, against the anti-Semitic boycott attempts against Israel, and not to be the voice of the boycotts. We've known in the past and know today how to stay strong." Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon of Likud issued the first and harshest rebuke, also questioning the U.S. "friendship," stating; "We respect Secretary of State Kerry, but will not hold talks with a gun to our head. Friends don't put ultimatums on the security of the state of Israel." Dannon concluded Israel will not be swayed by threats; "We will make decisions that guard the interests of the state of Israel. If we made choices based on the various forecasts of boycotts, we wouldn't be here today. In the past we saw that wherever the IDF wasn't present terror takes root."

On Sunday morning, Feb. 2 Netanyahu denounced Kerry's remarks during his opening remarks at the weekly cabinet meeting. The Israeli Prime Minister declared; "Attempts to impose a boycott on the State of Israel are immoral and unjust. Moreover, they will not achieve their goal." Netanyahu cited two reasons the threats will not bring a peace deal faster; "First, they cause the Palestinians to adhere to their intransigent positions and thus push peace further away. Second, no pressure will cause me to concede the vital interests of the State of Israel, especially the security of Israel's citizens. For both of these reasons, threats to boycott the State of Israel will not achieve their goal." Netanyahu made sure Kerry and the United States knows Israel would not be pushed in a corner and forced to accept a deal because of threats of economic boycotts.

Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely of Likud Beytenu praised Netanyahu's response, stating; "[US President Barack] Obama and Kerry are acting unilaterally and only putting pressure on Israel. [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] is calmly maintaining his positions, while Israel is being told to make painful concessions that endanger it and its citizens. That is not how negotiations should be run."

Kerry threats legitimizes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement and their unfair actions towards Israel, most of the Israeli leaders from right of center parties believe that Kerry was encouraging a boycott of Israel. Israel has been suspicious for awhile that Kerry has been manipulating boycotts from Europe to optimize the peace negotiations.

MK Ayelet Shaked of Bayit Yehudi seems to believe at the minimum Kerry with his remarks is inciting boycotts, since Israel's trade last year showed no signs of problems with international trade; "While in 2013, Israel had a record high in imports, Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to lay the groundwork for an economic boycott."
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz condemned Kerry's statement as "offensive and unacceptable" and akin to forcing Israel to negotiate with "a gun against its head." Steinitz believes that even if the peace talks fails because of the Palestinians, with this type of rhetoric, the world will put the blame entirely on Israel which will increase boycotts. Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel of Bayit Yehudi and MK and deputy Knesset speaker Ofir Akunis of Likud also criticized Kerry's statements.

Since 2005 Israel has been fighting off the pro-Palestinian boycott movement that mostly attacks Israeli academic, cultural and business institutions. The movement objects to Israel's control of lands won in the 1967 Six-Days War, the Jewish settlements and businesses operating within the settlements, and continued construction. It demands Israel give the lands beyond the country's original 1949 borders to the Palestinians, allow for the right to return and grant all Palestinian-Arabs equal rights, essentially destructing Israel as the world's only Jewish state.

The movement also equates Israel's policies to apartheid, likening it with the South-African apartheid movement, with the intention of questioning Israel's legitimacy and isolating it on the world's stage. According to the international community the settlements located beyond the 1967 borders or "red lines" as they are called are deemed illegal based on international law.

However, the boycott has targeted more than just the settlements; it has been attacking Israel in general. Just last week, on Jan. 20 the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visiting Israel and addressing the Knesset condemned the boycott movement as the new anti-Semitism. Harper pronounced; "And so we have witnessed, in recent years, the mutation of the old disease of anti-Semitism and the emergence of a new strain…. As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel." For many in Israel especially in the settlements most affected by any peace deal Kerry's remarks ring as just that 'Classic Anti-Semitism.'

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki responded to the criticism about Kerry's comments saying that they were taken out of context. Psaki used Twitter to issue her statement which said in separate tweets; "Secretary Kerry has a proud record of over three decades of steadfast support for Israel's security and well-being, including staunch opposition to boycott. Just last year while briefing foreign ministers at an EU conference in Vilnius on peacemaking efforts, he urged them to refrain from these measures."

Psaki directly referred to Kerry's boycott reference; "In response to the question about the peace process he described well known and previously stated facts about stakes for both sides if the process fails. Secretary Kerry's only reference to a boycott was a description undertaken by others that he has always opposed." Pasaki concluded by chastising the Israeli reaction; "Secretary Kerry has always expected opposition and difficult moments in the process, but he also expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements."

The Secretary of State comments did just focus on Israel's politics, but took a personal turn when Kerry took a swipe at Defense Secretary Moshe Ya'alon who in January called him "messianic" and "obsessive" over the peace talks. Although the Secretary of State dismissed Yaalon remarks as unimportant in the larger peace process and US-Israel relations, he apparently is still maintaining bad blood towards Yaalon.

Kerry jabbed Yaalon, saying; "I'm a little surprised by the articles quoting statements on obsession or a fanatical effort to try and achieve peace. We're just working hard, and I still am full of hope that our efforts will succeed and bring a peace agreement." Yaalon could not help but respond and declared; "we will make decisions that guard the interests of the state of Israel. If we made choices based on the various forecasts of boycotts, we wouldn't be here today. In the past we saw that wherever the IDF wasn't present terror takes root."

The Deputy Defense Minister spoke at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, Feb. 2 and tried to reframe the issue, debunking the myth that Israel and the settlements are the roadblock to peace, saying; "we should tell the truth to ourselves and not delude ourselves and to deceive ourselves regarding Abu Mazen's intentions." Yaalon was referring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, his demands and the proposed framework. Yaalon said that any agreement has to also include terms important to Israel; "Hopefully we'll get it. If not, we will manage."

This new conflict comes as the U.S. prepares to present their framework proposal as the basis of further negations, but will not be binding. The framework according to U.S. Envoy's Martin Indyk's revelations will be based on the pre-1967 borders with land swaps, include security for the Jordan Valley, will require the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish State, will not include a "right of return" for Palestinians, but monetary compensation, and Jerusalem's fate will not be included or decided on yet. The U.S. plans to present it in March. Even after the feuding comments between the two countries, Netanyahu and Kerry spoke for an hour on the phone on Sunday evening, Feb. 2 for an hour about the framework proposal and continuing the peace talks.

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.