With all the excitement in Washington over Barack Obama's inauguration, it may be tempting to put to one side for a little while the continuing problems in Gaza that so occupied the public and media attention throughout the last month. But one person clearly not watching Obama's swearing-in ceremony was the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who spent the day visiting the Gaza strip and Southern Israel. As the world's media widely reported, Ban, standing in front of the smoking rubble of a UN building described the scenes as "heartbreaking", and condemned the destruction as "outrageous, shocking and alarming".
It was an important and symbolic visit by the UN leader who was careful not to take sides in his condemnation of the "excessive force" used by both Israel and Hamas. And it clearly serves to highlight the fragility of the current ceasefire and the need for more determined resolve in finding a lasting solution to the problem. But the burning question, of course, is how can genuine progress to be made in such a complex and volatile political situation?
One suggestion recently put forward by the Canadian activist and author Naomi Klein is that businesses and consumers should take a role in addressing the conflict by actively boycotting Israel. Citing the Palestinian campaign group Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Klein argues that "economic sanctions are the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal." And she is not just talking about economic sanctions at the governmental level, but at the level of individual consumers and businesses too.
In fact, her two main examples of anti-Israel boycotting are both business-level actions: first, her own decision to switch publishers in Israel from a commercial publishing house to a small, anti-occupation acivist publisher; and second, a British telecom company, Freedomcall, which had recently sent an e-mail to the Israeli tech firm MobileMax saying "as a result of the Israeli government action in the last few days we will no longer be in a position to consider doing business with yourself or any other Israeli company."
Boycotts against Israel have been mooted, or activated, by academics, journalists and others in recent years - typically to storms of controversy. In the US, companies participating in anti-Israel boycotts can even be fined. However, recent developments in Gaza have clearly prompted a fresh look at some of these tactics by some, although specific instances of boycotts by western companies still appear to be very rare. Our very unscientific search only came up with one other report from the last two weeks - of a London-based Pashmina company which had joined a voluntary boycott on Israel due to "the horrors committed by the Israeli army". However, Ethical Performance also recently reported on Unilever selling its stake in a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement on the West Bank – but also noted that despite the protestations of campaign groups, had done so as part of a broader divestment process from non-core business rather than any "ethical considerations".
Similar protestations of what Klein calls "cold business calculation" are also evident at Freedomcall, where the managing director is quoted by her as saying "We can't afford to lose any of our clients, so it was purely commercially defensive." Such amoral language and the refusal by business to acknowledge that they are also involved in politics is not unusual. But what is unusual is Klein's appararent readiness to accept that business should be taking an active role in state politics, depsite (or even because of) their focus on commercial self-interest. The author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine is better known for criticising the role of the private sector in the public domain.
It seems unlikely to us that too many companies will feel comfortable joining an anti-Israel boycott, whether for commercial or political reasons. Why? Well, the ethics are simply too contentious for most business leaders to be comfortable making that kind of a call. Apartheid-era South Africa, or the current situation in Burma have a degree of moral consensus that presages corporate decision-making in a way that the problems in Gaza do not. Yes, maybe business leaders should be encouraged to stand up for what they believe in, but this is less likely to happen when they think their customers and other stakeholders might not agree with them. If even Ban Ki-moon is so careful in choosing and balancing his words of censure, corporations will no doubt tread even more carefully. Only concerted efforts by consumer groups and NGOs will be likely to change their views on whether a political boycott makes good sense. For better or for worse, that is the cold hard logic of business that Klein will have to recognize.
Photo copyright Tom Spender