From Anti-Israel Boycott Warrior to Busted Tax Evader: The Rise and Fall of Omar Barghouti

The arrest earlier this week of Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, for his alleged failure to pay taxes on $700,000 in income brings an end, or at least a halt, to the public face of his controversial campaign.

Barghouti was one of the founding members of Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which launched BDS campaign against Israel in July 2005. Barghouti has since become one of the most visible faces of the movement, having been quoted dozens of times in mainstream media coverage of the topic.

Barghouti, a Qatari-born Palestinian, is married to an Arab-Israeli woman and holds Israeli permanent residency status. He received a master’s degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University in 2010, several years after he began lobbying others to boycott Israeli academic institutions. When asked about this discrepancy by the Associated Press in 2015, Barghouti said Palestinians “cannot possibly observe the same boycott guidelines as asked of internationals,” and that the “indigenous population” is entitled to benefit from all the services they could get from the system.

The hypocrisy and dishonesty displayed by Bargouti concerning his advanced degree is emblematic of the BDS campaign as a whole. Earlier this year, the movement issued a list of ten successes during 2016; on closer inspection, every one of its claims was found to be either overstated or an outright lie.

Over the years, Barghouti’s has claimed that BDS was gaining traction as a mainstream movement, even as it remained on the fringes of popular discourse. In March 2012, after the Park Slope Food Co-op overwhelmingly rejected a boycott of Israeli products, Barghouti defiantly told The New York Times, “We are fast reaching our South Africa moment,” suggesting that his movement was successfully isolating Israel. A year later, after a number of academic associations passed pro-boycott resolutions, he said, “It is perhaps the strongest indicator yet that the B.D.S. movement is reaching a tipping point.” Several months later, Barghouti boasted, “the Israel brand today is more toxic than ever,” even as actress Scarlett Johansson refused to back down from appearing in a advertisement for SodaStream, an Israeli company that at the time operated a factory in the West Bank.

Despite these claims, Bloomberg News reported last June that since the BDS campaign was launched in 2005, foreign investment in Israel has nearly tripled. It seems that not many people are listening to Barghouti and his ilk.

In a March letter to Times, Barghouti claimed, “Since its inception in 2005 by the largest Palestinian grass-roots civil society coalition, B.D.S. has consistently called for ending Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; granting full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are discriminated against by dozens of laws; and recognizing the United Nations-stipulated right of Palestinian refugees to return to lands from which they were forcibly displaced during Israel’s establishment in 1948.”

Contrary to Barghouti’s allegation, Israel guarantees full civil rights to all of its citizens. Israeli-Arabs participate in the Knesset, on the Supreme Court, academic institutions, the diplomatic corps, and even the military.

More troubling is his insistence that Palestinians have a “right of return” to Israel. The immigration of the five million Palestinians classified as refugees by the United Nations–a classification based on a unique definition of “Palestine refugees,” which is different than the definition used for every other refugee population in the world–would overwhelm Israel with Palestinians, demographically destroying Israel as a Jewish state. It is shorthand for advocating the destruction of Israel and something that Barghouti has expressed more explicitly in the past. In 2004, he wrote, “We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it, for Zionism is intent on killing itself. I, for one, support euthanasia.”

Even his reference to resolution 194 is mistaken, as Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, wrote last year:

That resolution, while devoted chiefly to other matters, included a paragraph suggesting the return of all refugees—implicitly including Jews who had resided in Arab countries—to their original homes. It was not drafted to be mandatory and was never intended to have the force of law. The Arab governments never made any effort to extend such a “right” to Jews who had had to flee their countries and, in any event, did not vote for the resolution when it came before the General Assembly.

Mandelbaum continued:

This Palestinian demand is in fact an assault on the sovereignty of the Jewish state and thus part of the century-old campaign against Zionism. It asserts that Israel should not be allowed to exercise the fundamental, indeed defining, prerogative of sovereignty—the control of its own borders. It would also deny to Israel another sovereign prerogative, deciding who has the right to citizenship. By flooding the country with people hostile to it, finally, the result of implementing the Palestinian “right of return” would be the destruction of Israel, which is surely the reason that the Palestinians insist on it.

The irony is that after years of inflating claims of his movement’s success, Barghouti appears to have been undone by under-reporting his income.

David Gerstman is Associate Editor of The Tower. Follow him on Twitter @soccerdhg

[Photo: The Guardian / YouTube ]