Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Global Israel: an ice cream boycott and a spyware scandal (July 26, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: What scandalizes Israelis more, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream boycott of the West Bank or global anger at the abuse of NSO’s Pegasus spyware software to spy on dissidents and foreign leaders?

Sadly, the ice cream boycott scandalizes Israelis more by far. It is viewed in many mainstream circles as a dangerous national insult. The spyware scandal, in contrast, has drawn mixed reactions: defiant pride in Israel’s hi-tech prowess; sighs of resignation that, as with arms sales, it’s hard to control what buyers do with it; but also embarrassment and calls for tighter regulation.


Q: Let’s break this down. Unilever announced last week that it would cease marketing Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the West Bank. Official Israel protested loudly. BDS celebrated a victory. What’s your take? Is there a strategic dimension here?

A: First of all, let’s face facts: the Ben & Jerry’s boycott won’t work in any case. Israel and the West Bank are too intimately integrated. Unilever presumably can prevent direct sales in the West Bank, but it can’t prevent the many settlers who commute to work and studies inside Israel from bringing home a container of Chunky Monkey. Even the more than 100,000 West Bank Palestinians who work in Israel will be able to buy ice cream there.

Incidentally, if the boycott has any genuine effect in the West Bank it will be felt by Palestinians in addition to settlers. Israeli-owned shopping centers there sell to Arabs as well as Jews, and employ both.

In other words, the Ben & Jerry’s boycott, born of the admirable desire to protest the occupation and condemn the absence of movement toward a two-state solution, may not be fully in touch with Israeli-Palestinian reality. Fully ten percent of Israeli Jews now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There is no two-state solution on the horizon. Instead, there is increasing decline toward an ugly, undemocratic and un-Zionist one-state reality that embraces all Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Jordan’s King Abdullah II got it right recently when he labeled as a ‘civil war’ last May’s 11-day Israel-Hamas war with its many Arab-Jewish conflict manifestations inside Israel and in the West Bank.

Secondly, and in concert with the emerging one-state reality, the reaction to the boycott on the part of right-wing and even centrist Israelis was telling. To a large extent, they have ceased to recognize the occupation and ceased to distinguish between the West Bank and Israel. Prime Minister Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Lapid described this boycott of ice cream sales in the West Bank as a boycott on Israel proper. That is a reference even former PM Netanyahu never used in referring to Judea and Samaria, which have never been annexed to Israel. Perhaps equally ludicrous was the protest by President Herzog, who defined the ice cream boycott as “terrorism”. Ice cream terror? The boycott fits no known definition of terrorism.

If there is any strategic dimension here, it is this: in their minds, most Israelis and their leaders have already annexed the West Bank. And anyone who rejects Israel’s claim is a terrorist.


Q: But is there some precedent at work here that we should be aware of?

A: Arab boycotts of Israel go back nearly 100 years. After 1948, the Arab League institutionalized an indirect boycott and threatened to apply it to international firms (e.g., Coca Cola, Toyota) to deter them from selling to Israel. The effect on the nascent state was minimal, mainly encouraging a healthy attitude of self-reliance. After 1967 the Arab boycott dissipated, until peace and normalization rendered it a historical footnote.

In recent years, the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, founded in 2005, has attempted to apply a direct boycott. BDS has pressured international institutions, governments, entertainers and industry to engage in various forms of boycott of Israel. Commercial boycotts, like that of Unilever, focus on the West Bank. Entertainers like Roger Waters call to boycott Israel in general.

The PLO and Palestinian Authority back BDS. But most Arab countries are as indifferent to BDS as they are increasingly toward the Palestinian cause in general.

Here again, the overall effect has been negligible. Most Israelis shrug off boycotts. In a global economy, any product can be ordered on-line and any performing artist can always be watched on-line or on the next trip abroad. Further, for years now right-wing Israeli governments have, in order to stay in European Union good graces and profit from its research grants, acquiesced in EU demands to label settlement-made goods as produced in the West Bank or not to export them to Europe at all. A few Israeli enterprises, like Soda Stream, have moved their manufacturing operations out of the West Bank.

In other words, if and when a boycott threat gets serious, Israel and Israelis have found ways to maneuver around it. And they simply ignore the hypocrisy involved in making deals that implicitly recognize the boycotter’s case.

One way or another, Israeli governments have been sufficiently exercised by BDS to create a Ministry of Strategic Affairs that focuses on combatting boycotts. It maintains extensive data bases that occasionally trip-up BDS activists trying to visit Israel. It organizes pressure campaigns abroad. Many think this ministry’s very existence reflects a paranoia generally not shared by the Israeli public.

A careful reading of BDS objectives as outlined on the movement’s website reveals that it is energized not only about West Bank occupation. It also demands the right of return to Israel for no fewer than 7.25 Palestinian refugees. Not only is this the highest number of refugees I have ever encountered (UNWRA figures are under six million), but it expresses a well-known strategy of ultimately eliminating Israel as a Zionist, Jewish state.

Accordingly, we must note that while some BDS supporters oppose the occupation, others, perhaps most, oppose Israel’s very existence. Indeed, no less an anti-occupation dove than Akiva Eldar wrote in Haaretz this week that “BDS activists and spokespersons play into the hands of politicians . . . who turn protests against the occupation into ‘the struggle to destroy Israel’ and from there into ‘manifestations of anti-Semitism’”.


Q: In parallel with the Ben & Jerry’s issue, Israel is being accused globally of not properly regulating hi-tech firm NSO. The firm’s Pegasus spyware is allegedly being deployed by autocratic governments to spy on the wrong people--from dissidents to democratic heads of state. What happened here and who’s to blame? And is there a strategic dimension here too?

A: From the limited information available so far, it is fairly clear that both the Israeli hi-tech firm NSO and the government regulatory agency that is charged with approving its international sales, the Defense Export Controls Agency, have been neglecting their moral and legal obligations. They have been looking the other way when Pegasus was sold to autocratic regimes and governments--e.g., Morocco, Hungary, India--that could reasonably be expected not only to deploy it to track terrorists and criminals but to abuse it by targeting dissidents and political opponents.

Did NSO know specifically about the abuses? That is not clear. Nor is it at all clear whether all the people and agencies listed by Amnesty International and an international press consortium as being spied on (e.g., French President Macron) were really spied on.

Israel is a hi-tech superpower. Few observers have illusions about global trade in weapons of war, intelligence and surveillance. In a cynical world, this scandal is likely to increase NSO’s global sales.


Q: Bottom line: Will these scandals pass? Is there prominence simply a reflection of summer news doldrums?

A: I’m skeptical about economic boycotts. Generally they don’t work. In Israel’s case, if a boycott is really focused on punishing Israel for not moving toward a two-state solution, then it simply ignores the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Arab reality.

I’m also skeptical about accusations of the abuse of hi-tech sales. Like accusations about weapons sales, they are suspiciously selective. Just last week, Human Rights Watch accused the United States of exporting weapons to abusive governments in Egypt and the Philippines. What about Russia and China? In case human rights crusaders haven’t noticed, the world’s nations are increasingly authoritarian.

Still, somewhere in the motivation behind these accusations there is genuine moral indignation, however selective. We must pay attention to it.