JERUSALEM (AP) — 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 U.S. 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.
Also on Thursday, a U.N. agency said Israel in 2013 demolished 390 shacks and other structures in the West Bank's strategic Jordan Valley, displacing nearly 600 Palestinians, twice as many as the year before. In 2012, 172 structures were demolished, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Israeli officials had no immediate comment but have in the past said that structures set up without permits are being razed. Critics say Israel has sharply restricted Palestinian development in the valley and has maintained control over most of the land in the area.
The fate of the valley is one of the sticking points in U.S.-led peace talks.
The valley would form the eastern border of a Palestinian state with Jordan. Israel seeks a long-term military presence in the valley even after any deal, citing security concerns, including the possible influx of weapons and militants from the east. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he would consider a gradual Israeli troop withdrawal from a Palestinian state over five years, but not longer.
Palestinians say they need the sparsely populated valley as the breadbasket of their future state and for resettling Palestinian refugees who would return from exile.
In other developments, the Israeli military said Thursday that a military court has indicted a suspected al-Qaida operative who has been held for the past three years. Samir al-Baraq, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, has been jailed since he crossed into the West Bank from Jordan on 2010.
The indictment said al-Baraq was trained in Afghanistan as an expert in biological warfare and planned to train other Palestinians how to use them. It said he has been active in al-Qaida since 2001 and was recruited by Ayman al-Zawahri, the current al-Qaida chief.
He was previously arrested and released by the United States and Jordan, the army said.
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.