The Leaking Arab Boycott of Israel

October 06, 1994

The decision of six Persian Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia to end their secondary and tertiary boycotts of Israel shows Israelis that making peace with the Palestinians leads to a general acceptance in the Middle East. It also puts Saudi Arabia, always shy about policies of accommodation, visibly in support of the peace process.

The boycott, which began as a prohibition of Arab firms from doing business with Jews in Palestine in 1946, turned into a boycott of Israel in 1948 and of firms that do business with Israel (the secondary boycott) in 1951. It is maintained by the 22-member Arab League with an enforcement office in Damascus. The tertiary boycott requires firms wanting business with the Arabs to boycott firms doing business with Israel. Many caved in.

American firms that obey the Arab League boycott violate U.S. law. The best way to deal with the boycott was always to spurn it. Holiday Inn, Pepsico and Toyota have not suffered after moving into Israel in the past few years. The effect of the new relaxation by the Gulf Cooperation Council of oil states is on European firms that have been too timid to flout the boycott.

The Arab League reaffirmed the primary boycott in September. But the rationale has changed. This is no longer to smother Israel out of existence, but billed as pressure on Israel to come to terms with Syria and Lebanon on the border issues between them. That is a goal that is likely to be met.

Israel has, in fact, traded with Arab neighbors, with falsely labeled goods moving through the West Bank. But now several Arab states openly seek economic alliance with Israel, itself the economic nurturer of embryonic Palestine. An Israeli business delegation was reported in Kuwait. Israel and Jordan are negotiating economic cooperation.

Israel has had economic relations with Egypt. Now Morocco has agreed to exchange economic liaison offices. Tunisia followed with an agreement to exchange representatives working out of the Belgian embassies in both countries. India, a secular state with more Muslims than any other country, has agreed to air service with Israel. Del Monte, the giant food packing firm, just licensed an Israeli fruit canning company to market products with the Del Monte label throughout the Middle East, anticipating an end to the primary boycott.

The primary boycott was always within the sovereign right of Arab states to impose, like the U.S. boycott of Cuba. Of course, it failed and hurt the Arabs as well as Israel. Its secondary and tertiary features and the infamous blacklist, however, violated the sovereignty of other countries and the rights of their citizens. It deserved more defiance than it received.

Saudi Arabia's action now foretells the end of the whole boycott, rubbing in how detrimental it has been to Arab interests, and demonstrates how right Israel was to forge peace with the PLO.

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