A top American Jewish leader on Thursday called on Western governments to combat the growing international campaign to boycott Israel over its settlement activities, saying the phenomenon is one of the greatest challenges facing Israel.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told The Associated Press that the drive masks a "politically correct" form of anti-Semitism and urged "zero tolerance" of the boycott.
His comments came just days after warnings by US Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel could find itself increasingly targeted by a boycott if it fails to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. Kerry is mediating Israeli-Palestinian talks and is to present his vision soon for a deal, at least in its outlines.
Wide gaps remain between the sides on all key issues, including the fate of some 550,000 Israeli settlers who live on war-won land in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, two territories the Palestinians seek for their state, along with the Gaza Strip.
In recent months, concerns about a widening boycott of Israel over its continued settlement activities have moved to center stage in the Israeli public discourse.
A small but growing number of European businesses and pension funds have dropped investments or limited trade recently with Israeli firms involved in West Bank settlements. At the same time, a Palestinian-led movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions – knows by its acronym, BDS – has scored some successes.
Israeli officials hold different views on the boycott issue, depending on their political position.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a centrist who supports reaching a deal with the Palestinians, has warned that a failure of the talks could further isolate Israel and hurt every Israeli financially. Hard-liners have played down the threat or said boycott supporters apply a double standard, targeting only Israel.
The BDS movement includes a range of views, with some activists calling for a bi-national state in all of the Holy Land and others supporting a two-state solution. The latter argue that Israel will only withdraw from war-won lands if it pays a price for continued occupation.
Hoenlein said he believes the boycott campaign is dangerous to Israel.
"We have to counter the BDS movement in the strongest possible way," he said in the interview with the AP. "That means zero tolerance, and that has to become the mantra of our time because that is one the challenges of our time, this and Iran, and this is something that future generations will judge us by because they will pay the price for it."
"People are beginning to recognize how nefarious this is, how insidious this movement is that it is not something to be dismissed," he added.
Hoenlein said those boycotting Israel are undermining prospects of peace and are harming the economic interests of the Palestinians. He said at least one mayor of a large Palestinian city has asked him to combat the boycott movement for fear of the jobs it would cost Palestinians in Israeli settlements.
Thousands of Palestinians work in settlement businesses and factories, in part because of high unemployment in the Palestinian-administered parts of the West Bank. Palestinians say their economy has been choked by Israeli restrictions and that they could create thousands of new jobs if occupation ends.