Israel? Not so simple
Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 April 2002
Slamming Israel with an Arab boycott is not quite as straightforward
as some might think.
"The Council of Arab Foreign Ministers has decided to implement
the relevant paragraphs of the final communiqué of the Beirut
Summit concerning the suspension of establishing any relations with
Israel, in view of the setbacks to the peace process...[It has also
decided to] reactivate the Arab Bureau for the Boycott of Israel,
until such time as Israel responds by implementing resolutions of
international legitimacy, honouring the terms of reference of the
Madrid Peace Conference and withdrawing from occupied Arab territories
to the 4 June 1967 boundaries."
So reads article six of the communiqué adopted last Saturday
by Arab foreign ministers during an extraordinary session of the
Arab League devoted to examining how best to answer Israel's reoccupation
of the Palestinian territories.
Theoretically, the Arab Bureau for the Boycott of Israel is supposed
to examine those "relevant paragraphs," (as well as other
similar language adopted during the Beirut Summit and last month's
meeting of the Arab Council of Foreign Ministers), and put its resolutions
into practice when it meets later this month at its Damascus headquarters.
But in fact, little concrete action is likely.
"Boycotting Israel is something that we talk about and include
in our official documents but it is not something that we actually
carry out -- at least not in most Arab states," commented one
His statement is revealing. Talk of reviving an Arab economic boycott
of Israel has featured in every communiqué emanating from
Arab meetings since the 2000 Cairo Arab Summit convened in the wake
of the Intifada. Since then, however, rhetoric has outstripped reality.
Indeed, the only meeting of the Damascus-based Arab Bureau for the
Boycott of Israel yet to take place (in October 2001) since then
was marked by the absence of three Arab countries. Egypt and Jordan
excused themselves on the basis of their peace agreements with Israel,
while Mauritania decided to miss the meeting with the gnomic comment
that it found its relations with Israel "particularly helpful
to the Palestinian cause."
The April meeting is unlikely to be any different. Like the October
meeting, it will focus solely on "operational logistics"
rather than invoking the terms of boycott against Israel.
One reason for the bureau's impotence is the lack of political
will on the part of most Arab states for a boycott of Israel. "Syria,
Lebanon, Libya and Iraq are the only countries that are in favour.
The remainder of the Arab League's 22 members are actually opposed
to the idea. They see it as a non-starter," commented an Arab
source. He added, "It is not only Egypt and Jordan (who are
bound by peace treaties with Israel)."
The other countries also oppose changes in policy that might negatively
affect their wider economic interests, whether in relation to the
oil industry or financial aid.
Another equally important reason why the boycott bureau is so ineffectual
is its lack of a comprehensive database listing which firms do business
with which countries.
In theory, there are three degrees of possible boycott. Under the
remit of the first and easiest, direct cooperation between an Arab
company and an Israeli company is outlawed. "That is the simple
one. Most Arab countries, other than Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania,
would say that they have no direct cooperation with Israeli companies,"
commented an Arab diplomat.
The second and third degrees of boycott are less straightforward.
They prohibit an Arab company cooperating with an Israeli company
through a third party, or an Arab company cooperating with any foreign
company that also does business with an Israeli firm.
"Now who can imagine that Saudi Arabia, for example, will
sever its ties with major American oil companies just because those
companies have ties with Israel? This would be totally unrealistic,"
commented a diplomatic source.
Moreover, boycotting Israel is something the US disapproves of
utterly, the source said. Upsetting Washington is something that
almost every Arab state wants to avoid.
"Last year, there was a move to boycott a big US cosmetics
company because its owner was linked to Israel's settlement activities.
This move was clearly suspended after US pressure," commented
an informed source.
Nor is the practical task of identifying suitable targets for second
or third degree boycott anywhere near complete. Given the complicated
measures and criteria involved in deciding the origin of many products
it is next to impossible to know what is and what is not a product
originally sourced from Israel. Israel, for example, may sell raw
plant fertiliser to Europe. There, the fertiliser is stamped as
being of European origin, having been processed and packed there.
So, for an Arab country to boycott that particular brand of plant
fertiliser it would need to have accurate information on the entire
inventory chain, which would be no mean feat.
In the absence, then, of complete lists specifying which companies
fall under the remit of the second or third degrees of boycott,
talk of a serious, concerted Arab effort is unrealistic, even if
that effort were to exclude those countries that have direct economic
ties with Israel.
Compiling complete boycott lists is, of course, where the Arab
Bureau for the Boycott of Israel could be of most use. It could
carry out investigations by cooperating with Arab League diplomatic
missions overseas, and the embassies of the Arab states in all non-Arab
"But this has not been happening at all for many, many years,
and there is no reason why anyone should assume that any effort
will be made on this front now," commented an Arab League source.
He added, "In fact, the secretariat of the Arab League has
not issued directives to its missions to pursue this effort since
we only know too well the stance of most of the Arab states on this
A final cause of Arab misgiving is that boycotting Israel may cause
a counter- reaction in the West. Some Western countries must, by
law, impose economic sanctions on countries that boycott Israel.
This would entail serious difficulties for any Arab country that
wants to boycott Israel yet remains keen to export to wealthy Western
countries, or receive financial aid from their governments.
"As a matter of fact, we do not know exactly how far we can
apply a boycott and what economic consequences it would entail for
Arab economies. There has been no comprehensive study that deals
with this issue either on the part of governments or non-governmental
organisations," commented an Arab diplomat. He added, "The
fact that this study has not been done, nor even assigned, is clear
evidence that we are not really serious about planning a boycott."
The Arab diplomats and officials willing to admit this are not
few. "This is the way things are, but public opinion refuses
to accept it. That is why we have to have this language in the documents
coming out of our meetings," said one diplomat. But the fact
of the matter is, he said, that it is up to the people to boycott
Israeli products wherever they can identify them.
That may be easier said than done. In Arab countries, where the
origin of a product is not always specified, its true source may
be shrouded in mystery.
"Our government should tell us. We want the government to
print in the papers the full lists of Israeli products," commented
But this, Egyptian officials argue, could be construed as flying
in the face of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
And even if a government, in Egypt for example, decided to print
such a list, more mundane concerns may finally determine whether
a particular product would be blacklisted or not.
"Of course, I would boycott. I should feel ashamed of myself
if I did not," said one Cairo taxi driver.
But another disagreed. "No. Everything is so expensive. If
I can find something cheaper than the rest I will buy it, no matter
who it is made by," he said.
of boycotts past
ARAB COUNTRIES first used economic boycotts against Israel's economy
over 50 years ago. Dina Ezzat looks back.
The idea of an Arab boycott of Israeli products first saw the light
of day in 1951. For over two decades following that date, Arab governments
wielded the boycott as an effective political and economic weapon
against their regional neighbour. Then, in 1979, Egypt broke ranks
and signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state. The remaining Arab
countries continued to observe the terms of the boycott until the
1991 Madrid peace conference, when talk of boycott was replaced
by talk of Arab-Israeli regional cooperation. During the following
decade, the Arab Bureau for the Boycott of Israel met only once,
inconclusively and briefly, in 1993.
Fast-forward to today, and the new globalised economic order has
made boycotting Israel's economy far more problematic than once
it was (see main feature). Which is why, during a period of seething
tension between the Arab states and Israel, the old weapon, both
as concept and practice, is failing to muster the strength it had
in the bygone days of the 1950s and 1960s.