Arab boycott of Israel

The Arab boycott of Israel was in fact instituted before the existence of this state, in response to a boycott on Arab labour on the land acquired by the Jewish National Foundation. It aimed to weaken economically the colonies which were settling there with a view to creating a Jewish state in Palestine.

Its official existence, coordinated by the Arab League, goes back to December 1945. It was strengthened in 1948 and in 1951 when the Arab League adopted a recommendation in response to Israel’s refusal to let the 750,000 Palestinians who had fled in 1948 return to their homeland. The following year, a Boycott Office was founded by the League and set up in Damascus.

The boycott is an obstacle, authorised by international law, to trade freedom, as are embargos, for instance.

The boycott has two official levels :

primary: no direct trade between Arab countries and Israel.

secondary: refusal by Arab states to trade with certain companies which, by the volume and nature of their trade with Israel, reinforce the political and military potential of Israel.

A third level, which is not provided for nor controlled by the Boycott Office, exists in effect with certain firms avoiding any association with firms which are said to be on the boycott black list.

According to the Anti-Boycott Department of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, a fourth and personal level also exists alledgedly, aimed at companies with important Jewish personalities on their management boards. This, however, is denied by the Arab League.

As a result of a major Israeli campaign, American Congress adopted a law in 1978 which says that any company involved in a « boycott not decided by the United States » can be brought to court ; this law is apparently aimed at the Arab boycott of Israel. Two European countries are said to have adopted similar legislation, although rarely applied: France (1977, modified in 1981) and Germany (1990). A draft law was also debated in the Netherlands in 1982 without result.

In other respects, the recommendations of the Boycott Office have always been applied in different ways by the different Arab states and the boycott itself has been considerably relaxed over the past years. One Arab country, Egypt, is no longer officially associated with it.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the GCC states suggested lifting the boycott in exchange for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.

The peace process launched in Madrid in 1991 had a considerable impact on the application of the boycott. Morocco rapidly developed direct economic ties with Israel, with commercial exchanges totalling $100 million in 1993.

The Declaration of Principles, concluded by Israel and the PLO in September 1993, encouraged this trend further: Qatar (a GCC member) officially started preliminary discussions in January 1994, aiming at an agreement worth over $1 billion to export natural gas towards Israel.

As soon as the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was signed in October 1994, the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuweit, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) announced their decision to no longer apply the second and third levels of the boycott. In fact, these aspects of the boycott were already largely ignored as Arab countries were often after goods sold by foreign companies to the Israelis, notably in the arms industry. However, by legalising this reality, the Gulf States were showing their overt support for the peace process.

And in September of the same year, Morocco and Israel opened liaison offices in their respective capitals, prompting Tunisia to do the same.

These developments were proof of the positive impact of the peace process and also encouraged the organisation of the first Middle East and North Africa Economic Summit (MENA) held in Casablanca and in which 64 countries participated, among them Israel.

The near-breakdown of the peace process has naturally harnessed Arab countries from making opening gestures towards Israel. Hence, the MENA Conference, renewed every year since 1994, failed miserably in 1997 at Doha (Qatar) as numerous Arab countries, including Morocco, refused to take part side by side with Israel. Tunisia was among the participants but discreetly called back its Tel Aviv liaison officer.

Lifting the economic boycott of Israel officially and totally is no longer taboo but simply depends on progress in the application of the Oslo Agreements and the peace process in general. The degradation of the diplomatic situation, as a consequence of the uprising in Palestinian territories and its severe repression, has put the issue of the boycott back on the agenda of the League of Arab States. At present, Jordan and Egypt still refuse to apply this instrument, calthough it would have very limitted effects since Israel mostly trades with the USA and the European Union.