Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that those who boycott Israel are anti-Semites.
Speaking at the Conference of Presidents, Netanyahu told a group of visiting Jewish-American leaders that it is time for Israel to "fight back" and "delegitimize the delegitimizers."
There are increasing concerns in Israel over a Palestinian-led movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). The boycott has been growing recently, mainly in Europe, where some businesses and pension funds have cut investments or trade with Israeli firms they say are connected to West Bank settlements.
"In the past anti-Semites boycotted Jewish businesses and today they call for the boycott of the Jewish state, and by the way, only the Jewish state," Netanyahu said. "I think that it is important that the boycotters be exposed for what they are, they are classical anti-Semites in modern garb," Netanyahu said.
But Netanyahu, citing in particular Israel's cybersecurity industry, said the heads of international high-tech companies he has met "all want the same three things: Israeli technology, Israeli technology and Israeli technology".
"The capacity to innovate is a great treasure of profound economic value in today's world," he said. "And that is something that is bigger than all these boycotters could possibly address."
Many Israelis say the boycott has strong anti-Semitic connotations and is meant to delegitimize the Jewish state as a whole and not merely a pressure tactic against its policies toward the Palestinians.
For many Israelis, the boycott conjures up dark images of the Nazi boycott prior and during WWII when Jewish academics were kicked out of universities and Jewish businesses were vandalized and boycotted.
BDS activists say they promote different objectives, with some focusing on a boycott of the settlements and others saying everything Israeli must be shunned until there is a peace deal. BDS supporters argue that Israel will withdraw from war-won lands only if it has a price to pay. Israeli leaders dismiss such claims, pointing to their willingness to negotiate a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
After years of brushing off boycott threats as a tool of fringe extremists, Israel seems to have become genuinely worried in recent months.
As is his custom, Netanyahu also addressed the issue of the Iranian threat, saying the interim agreement with Tehran legitimizes the Islamic Republic for no reason and asserting that "Iran has given practically nothing, but gets international legitimacy."
His remarks came on the eve of fresh talks between Iran and the P5+1 group - Britain, France, the United States, China and Russia plus Germany - aimed at reaching a comprehensive accord on Tehran's controversial nuclear program.
Israel was highly critical of an interim deal signed between Iran and the West in November under which Iran agreed to freeze or scale back its nuclear activities for a six-month period in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
The interim deal, he said, only delayed Tehran's nuclear program in four weeks, while the Islamic Republic continues developing more effective centrifuges that would allow them to reach a bomb faster.
The prime minister made similar comments to visiting Peruvian President Ollanta Humala in their meeting earlier Monday.
"So far the only one who benefited from these talks is Iran. In fact they didn't give anything but they got a lot," Netanyahu told President Humala.
"Iran is continuing its aggressive behavior: arming terrorist groups, supporting the massacre of his own people by the Assad regime (in Syria), calling for the destruction of Israel and subversive activities all over the world, including Latin America."
Israel and the West have long suspected Iran of covertly pursuing a nuclear weapons capability alongside its civilian program – charges denied by Tehran.
The United States and Israel – which views Iran as its greatest strategic threat – have not ruled out military action to prevent Tehran from acquiring an atomic bomb.
Iran's top decision-maker Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also expressed skepticism about the talks, and on Monday said they would "lead nowhere."
"I repeat it again that I am not optimistic about the negotiations and they will lead nowhere, but I am not against them," Khamenei said in remarks published on his website Khamenei.ir.