JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on Sunday that his country faces “an international campaign to blacken its name” based not on his policies toward the Palestinians but “connected to our very existence,” likening the mounting boycott movement to anti-Semitic “libels” of earlier eras.
Speaking to his cabinet after Israel’s successful diplomatic blitz to block a Palestinian bid to suspend it from international soccer competition, Mr. Netanyahu declared: “This is a phenomenon that we have known in the history of our people,” citing as examples accusations that Jews “are the focus of all evil in the world” and “drink the blood of little children.”
“It is important to understand that these things do not stem from the fact that if only we were a little nicer or a little more generous that anything would change,” the prime minister said, according to a statement released by his office, “because this campaign to delegitimize Israel entails something much deeper that is being directed at us and seeks to deny our very right to live here.”
The Palestinian push to suspend Israel from FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, was based on complaints about Israeli restrictions on athletes’ travel through checkpoints and border crossings, tariffs on imported equipment, racism among soccer fans and the inclusion in Israeli leagues of teams from five settlements in the occupied West Bank. Under intense pressure and unable to garner the 75 percent majority required for suspension, the Palestinians dropped the demand at the last minute, accepting instead the formation of a FIFA committee to address the situation.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Mr. Netanyahu’s comments were a familiar scare tactic through which he aimed to discredit criticism of his government’s actions on the ground.
“Any rational person who deals with reality rather than hysterical fear understands we have recognized Israel, we just want Israel to abide by international law and let go of us in the end,” she said in an interview. “If you criticize me, you’re anti-Semitic, that’s the response. If you accept any kind of punitive measure or sanctions against Israel, you want to destroy Israel. Then the whole argument is circumvented.”
Mr. Netanyahu has previously denounced the growing boycott movement as anti-Semitic and “immoral,” but his remarks on Sunday, both to the cabinet and after a meeting with the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were more extensive and pointed.
He asked Mr. Steinmeier, who later met with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, to “tell the Palestinians to stop their campaign to delegitimize Israel” and “get back to the negotiating table.” He also questioned why the world’s wrath seemed focused on Israel when “a hundred times more people are being slaughtered in Syria.”
“We have done nothing wrong, and we have not erred,” he said. “We are not a perfect country, and we do not pretend to be such, but they are setting standards for us that are higher than those for any other country, any other democracy.”
The founding document of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement includes a reference to Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes inside Israel proper, and some of its leaders call for a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Most Israeli Jews, as well as many outside experts, see either such a one-state solution or the return of all refugees and their descendants as a demographic death warrant for Israel as a Jewish state, which is how it was founded in 1948.
Yet the boycott movement is a broad umbrella that includes initiatives singling out only institutions and companies operating in West Bank settlements, with many advocates who support Israel as a Jewish state but call for an end to the occupation. Some Israeli opposition politicians, and American Jewish leaders, have expressed concern that broad-brush dismissal of the intensifying calls for sanctions against Israel leaves it defenseless against substantive critiques of its policies.
Tzipi Livni of the center-left Zionist Union party, wrote of the FIFA campaign on Facebook: “For Israel to be sure of its place, a change of policy is necessary, not just cosmetic words.” Zehava Galon of the left-wing Meretz party, also on Facebook, said, “Israel can’t continue to bury its head in the sand, say that the whole word is against us and that things in Syria and Sudan are worse.”
“Continuing the occupation and managing the conflict exact an international cultural, academic and economic price,” Ms. Galon wrote. “This is an excellent time to ask ourselves whether or not we’re willing to pay this price.”
Many Israeli commentators over the weekend described the FIFA battle as “a wake-up call” and worried about future efforts to ban Israel from other sporting events, including the Olympics, and academic conferences. President Reuven Rivlin last week convened a discussion on academic boycotts in which he warned, “The winds are changing, and we must regard this as one of the top strategic threats.”
Yuval Rotem, a high-ranking official in Israel’s foreign ministry responsible for countering international isolation, said in an interview that politicians rushed to increase the military budget after last summer’s war with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, “but my war started the day after the war in Gaza is over, and I didn’t get even one penny in addition.”
“I know what to do in the United Nations, I know what to do in Geneva — now I need to build a base of power to deal with a trade union in Ireland or a church in Panama,” Mr. Rotem said. “It’s a new spectrum of arenas, it’s a new spectrum of battlegrounds, that takes us to all those trade unions, to all those churches, to all those campuses and universities, and all those conferences of sciences, all museums and art exhibitions. Every element of Israeli activity is basically challenged.”
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(via NY Times)