The Arab League boycott of Israel began in 1951 with the goal of supporting the Palestinians by prohibiting trade and economic relations with the Jewish state, and to penalize countries and companies that do business with Israel.
Although the boycott was enforced for several decades, it has unraveled in recent years due in part to the normalization of relations between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and the establishment of trade offices in Morocco and Qatar (which were closed during the Gaza conflict of January 2009). The realities of globalization and international trade, and the inability of Arab countries to produce some products like microprocessors and military equipment, have also weakened the Arabs only economic weapon against Israel. As a result, Arab markets are penetrated daily by Israeli products and investments in a variety of legal and illegal ways.
“Obviously we are suffering from the leaking of Israeli products to the Arab world,” said Haisam Bawab, head of Lebanon’s Israeli boycott office at the Ministry of Economics and Trade. “We know it happens and this is why we are trying to increase the supervision [of] such [products].”
How much is unsure
The estimated amount of direct illegal trade in products between Israel and its Arab neighbors is uncertain and varies. Forbes magazine put the figure at $500 million in 1984, equal to $1.3 billion in today’s dollars. In 2004, the Manufacturers Association of Israel estimated Israeli exports to Arab nations and entities amounted to around $192 million. A year later, Infoprod, an Israeli research firm that specializes in regional trade, estimated that the figure amounted to $400 million, around two and a half times Israel’s trade with its official Arab trading partners that year.
Speaking to an American journalist in New York, Doron Peskin, head of research at Infoprod, estimated that total Arab-Israeli trade averaged $780 million per year in 2007 and 2008, including trade with Jordan and Egypt.
Ibrahim Saif, resident scholar and specialist on the political economy of the Middle East at the Carnegie Middle East Center said direct trade “is not that significant.” He estimates this kind of trade amounts to under $100 million a year.
No matter what the amount of illicit trade, not to mention investment from Israel to the Arab world, the fact is that this type of trade does exist and is funneled to the Arab world through a variety of methods. The main passageway for Israeli products to enter Arab markets is through front companies established in countries that have bilateral relations with both Arab nations and Israel, or through Jordan and Egypt which have signed peace deals with Israel. Israeli products are shipped to third parties in these countries, who then remove any markings which would identify the products as being made in Israel and forward the products onto Arab markets.
According to Bawab, the head of the Israeli boycott office, companies set up in Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus and even China are the main culprits of this sort of practice.
“Many Israeli companies have offices abroad and use them for trade with the Arab world,” said Peskin. “I remember, from earlier this year, the big news in Yemen [was] that its Liquid Natural Gas company [Yemen LNG] used software developed by an Israeli firm based in Tel Aviv. This company used its Hong Kong office for trade with Yemen and other Gulf countries.”
Many experts have also identified Turkey as another routing point for Israeli products entering Arab markets.
In order to curb this type of activity, Arab countries rely on “certificate of origin” documents presented to customs officials at trading ports. But, like any official document, these can be fabricated. The fact that international product sourcing regulations vary from country to country makes it difficult to identify component parts of finished products.
“In agricultural produce, for instance, Israel exports to Jordan and there the documents are changed and the products transported to the Gulf markets as Jordanian produce,” said Peskin. “What is the effect of the Arab boycott in this case?”
Last year, the Arabic language newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi reported that it had discovered Israeli investors using Palestinian agents in the occupied West Bank to repackage Israeli potatoes with false certificates of origin in order to sell them as Palestinian produce to Qatar via Jordan. The paper also claimed that a Palestinian investor, who the paper did not name but identified as a minister in a previous government, was offered 25 percent of the profits to re-export Israeli products as Palestinian to the Arab world.
Even with the increased costs of using third parties, the allure of penetrating Arab markets seems natural given the types of products Israel excels at manufacturing.
“From irrigation to security systems, Israel is very well suited to working in the Arab world,” said Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a regional think tank that specializes in socio-economic and geopolitical issues in the Middle East.
Due to the fact that the boycott has substantially weakened over the years, the need for Israel to covertly trade with its Arab neighbors, however, becomes less salient because in many instances Israel can already sell their products in Arab markets.
The levels of boycott
The original text of the Arab League boycott stipulates that member states adhere to a primary boycott (products that originate in Israel), secondary boycott (businesses that operate and manufacture in Israel) and tertiary boycott (a boycott of businesses that have relationships with other businesses trading in Israel). The tertiary boycott has been abandoned — that’s why Pepsi, Coke, Starbucks and other international brands can operate in both Israel and the Arab world — and today only Lebanon and Syria uphold some of the principles of the secondary boycott.
“If you want to impose all the principles of the boycott you wouldn’t have one American or European company in Lebanon or in the Arab countries,” said the Lebanon Boycott Office’s Bawab. “We adhere to the spirit and the principles of the boycott.”
When the secondary boycott is applied, there are still “strategic companies” that each country has the right to exempt if they are seen as necessary to their economies. A premier example is Intel, the global microprocessor manufacturer, who has maintained design and manufacturing plants in Israel since 1974. “All the most important Intel products have a bit of Israel inside,” said Ron Friedman, vice-president and general manager of Intel’s mobile microprocessors group at a press conference in Israel last February.
Intel currently employs more than 5,000 Israelis, and exports from Israel by the company peaked at $2 billion in 2000. Last year the company exported $1.39 billion, down 10 percent from the previous year as a result of the global downturn.
“What we do is we try to convince companies to close their factories in Israel and come to us in the Arab world and we support it,” said Bawab. “But this needs oversight and frankly there is no oversight… from the government[s].”
Many Israeli companies also sell their wares through distributors in the Middle East and simply re-route their products through another office setup in a third country. Orad, an Israeli-based company that manufactures newsroom and broadcasting products, blatantly lists its distributor in Abu Dhabi, Tek Signals, on the company’s website. When Executive called to enquire about the companies products, a Tek Signal’s company representative said: “Orad’s head office is in Israel but another main office is in the United Kingdom.” The representative confirmed that even though the products might be manufactured in Israel “all the shipments come from the UK.” As a result, they said, there wouldn’t be any problem with boycott issues.
Lebanon boycott office head Bawab lamented that there are many instances like this across the region. “There are things we can discover, and when we do we stop them,” Bawab said. “There are some things we cannot discover.”
In February, the US publication Defense News reported that Abu Dhabi is in talks with a company called ImageSat International, incorporated firm in the Dutch Antilles, to use the company’s EROS B satellite and its high-resolution imagery. According to the article, the emirate already receives images from the satellite’s precursor, EROS A, and both satellites were built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Israel’s largest defense firm with a controlling interest in Tel Aviv-based ImageSat.
“Of course, the products of Israel’s advanced hi-tech industry are targeting the Gulf markets,” said Peskin.
Regional mail forwarding services have also come under fire for facilitating the shipment of products through third countries. A 2006 article in the right-wing Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post claimed that Aramex, a regional delivery service, was facilitating this type of trade through their mail forwarding service.
An Aramex customer service representative said that there was “logically no handicap” to mail being forwarded from a third country but said she had never come across Israeli products being shipped in this manner. Asma Zein, Aramex’s country director in Lebanon, later contacted Executive to clarify that the service did not allow for products to be shipped from third countries, citing that it is against US law to change the labeling on packages. “We don’t have time… to change any labels in New York. We don’t even check what is written on the box,” said Zein. “As Aramex we [don’t] serve Israel and [Aramex] doesn’t get [products] from Israel, definitely not.” She added that Aramex intends to get the Israeli publication to retract its statement regarding the company’s shipping practices.
In order to track companies that are subject to the boycott, the Arab League runs a list that identifies companies as being Israeli, manufacturing in Israel or having “Zionist funds.” One popular way around this is to list an Israeli company on an international stock exchange or to take control of public companies operating in the Arab world.
“If you are talking about public companies then you don’t know who the owners are. You cannot know,” said Bawab.
Trade agreement trouble
One of the biggest blows to the effectiveness of the boycott is the decision by many countries in the region to sign onto international trade agreements. Countries that join the World Trade Organization, for instance, are required to drop barriers to trade, as are those that sign free trade agreements with the US. Saudi Arabia, which joined the World Trade Organization in 2006, said it “would treat all member states equally.”
Even though Israel is a full member of the WTO, Saif explained that the Saudis “don’t have to implement [dropping the boycott] because they don’t have a peace treaty [with Israel].”
Asked whether Saudi Arabia still adheres to the boycott Bawab said they do not. Do they still show up to the meetings? “This question I am asking and I am not finding an answer to. It is something political and I don’t have anything to do with it.”
Saudi Arabia has also spearheaded the Arab Peace Plan in 2002 which offers to lift the Arab League boycott of Israel.
Upon signing a free trade agreement with the US, Bahrain also completely dropped the boycott and no longer attends the bi-annual meetings. Tunis and Qatar even allowed Israeli commercial interest offices to open in their countries, only to close them during second the intifada and the Gaza conflict, respectively.
Defense News reported the Israelis operated an “informal and extremely discreet interest office in Abu Dhabi for several years,” but the publication also reported the two countries “chances of developing more open relations are slim to nil.”
The Palestinian Authority ended the boyott after signing the Oslo accords. Mohamad Bbousalaa, director general of the Central Boycott Office in Damascus, said that only “14 to 15 states” of the 22 member Arab League have attended the bi-annual meetings “for the past 4 years.”
Who cares enough to adhere?
When it comes to figuring out how much each country adheres to the boycott, one of the only ways to ascertain the seriousness of boycott adherence is to look at the correspondence between respective countries’ boycott offices. According to Bawab, each country is supposed to identify potential Israeli companies that apply for trade certificates or patents, as well as boats or planes (which have specific rules that apply to them) that land in the respective country’s ports. Each Arab nation will then cross-check the blacklist with the CBO to see if the company, boat or plane is present on the list and relay that information to all other boycott offices.
“I am not seeing anything [correspondence] from Libya, Morocco, Tunis, Algeria, Iraq [or] the Gulf. I get a few from Syria,” said Bawab.
However, Bbousalaa, disagrees. He said that boycott offices are only required to correspond with the central office, and only if it is a “big issue” does the central office forward the correspondence to other offices. Bbousalaa declined requests to provide a copy of any recent correspondences.
The adherence to the boycott is not binding for the members of the Arab League and enforcement is the onus of each member state.
The effectiveness of the boycott also received a battering from the policies of Israel’s, as well as many Arab states’, allies that do not allow their companies to adhere to it. In 1977, the US Congress and President Jimmy Carter, who today calls Israel an apartheid state, made it illegal for US companies to comply with the Arab League boycott of Israel. US companies are obliged to report any requests by Arab nations to adhere to the boycott of Israel to the US Department of Commerce’s Office of Anti-boycott Compliance. The penalties for a failure to do so range from a fine of up to $50,000 per violation or five times the value of the exports in question (whichever is greater), to imprisonment of up to five years, or both.
“The law, which is exceptionally complicated, is the product of strong US-Israeli relations,” said Farhad Alavi, a senior counsel at the Washington-based law offices of RA Kerr and specialist in international trade law. “The US does not want its residents, as well as US citizens outside the US, and companies… to be used as tools to further the anti-Israeli policies of certain countries.”
What ultimately attracts Israeli companies to Arab markets does not seems to be actual trade in products with Arab nations but the investment potential of the Arab states, even despite the effects of the global downturn. “They [Israel] want to invest and they want to have presence,” said Carnegie’s Saif.
But if an Israeli company is not too ambitious, they can invest in Arab markets as long as they do not acquire a majority share. “We consider that if a company has 51 percent Israeli ownership of shares or Zionist funds, it is blacklisted,” said Bawab. He agreed that anything below was not covered by the boycott.
“The Arab Boycott’s practical outcome today is negligible,” claimed Peskin. “It is mainly effective in countries like Syria, Libya and Lebanon, while I think most of the Israeli exporters are targeting the markets of the oil-rich Gulf states.”
But even in countries where the boycott is applied, like Syria, measures have been adopted that remove some of the trade barriers that had been erected since the early 1950s. For instance in June, Syria scrapped the requirement for first-time patent applicants to submit a declaration of compliance with the boycott of Israel.
Instrument of peace
Now that there is a new push for peace in the region, the boycott is again being highlighted by none other than the proponents of this new peace initiative, as an instrument rather than a weapon.
“What I’d like to see is indicators that they [Arab nations] are willing, if Israel makes tough commitments, to also make some hard choices that will allow for an opening of commerce [and] diplomatic exchanges between Israel and its neighbors,” said US President Barack Obama earlier this year. Last month, more than two-thirds of the US Senate signed a letter, endorsed by the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israeli lobbying group in the US, supporting “efforts to encourage Arab states to normalize relations with Israel.
Obama’s administration has also suggested that Arab states allow El Al, Israeli’s national carrier, to use Arab airspace. Saudi Arabia, one of the US’s strongest allies in the region, has opposed such a plan until the Arab Peace Plan is adopted by Israel.
The concept of dismantling the boycott has also been proposed by Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He supports the notion of an “economic peace” as a forbearer to political peace despite the fact that he has been reluctant to make “tough commitments,” like freezing settlements or accepting the concept of the Palestinian right of return.
It’s little wonder why Netanyahu, the former chief marketing officer of the Boston Consulting Group, wants to embrace “economic peace.” According to research conducted by the Strategic Foresight Group, a global research and policy advisory group, Israel would have almost doubled its per capita income ($23,000 to $44,000) from 1991 to 2010 and would not have lost $15 billion in tourism revenue from 2000 to 2006 if there had been a resolution to the conflict.
The onus is on Israel
For now the boycott stays in place, despite its numerous holes, and looks set to remain until there is a resolution to the Arab Israeli conflict, and more specifically, a just solution offered to the Palestinians both inside Palstine and in the region.
“If there is progress on the peace process, this is something that definitely will be dropped,” said Carnegie’s Saif. “It has not taken a front seat but if there is progress [on the peace process], you will see that this point will become very significant.”
For there to be any official changes made regarding the boycott, however, there will most likely need to be movement on the Israeli policy front, as opposed to an Arab decision.
“The easy thing for the Arab world to do will be to stay on the course that it has been on, which is to continue to relax the Arab boycott in practice while supporting it in name as long as certain countries can,” said Amr. “The question really is going to be whether Israel is willing to make the compromises it needs to make.”
First published as the cover story of Executive Magazine’s September 2009 issue