Leading article: Beware the unintended consequences

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The Independent Online

The prestigious collection of architects and planners brought together to lead a boycott of Israel is justified in pointing out that construction has been vital to Israel's annexation of Palestinian land. Without the efforts of Israeli architects and construction workers, the settlements in the occupied territories would never have been possible. Nor could the illegal West Bank barrier have been built without them.

Whether this makes the Israeli construction industry "complicit in economic and social oppression" of the Palestinians is open to debate. But if, as has been suggested, the Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine advocate an active boycott of Israeli architects and that country's construction industry, they will be going too far. The idea that an economic boycott will further the cause of peace and justice in the region is misguided. It is reminiscent of the ill-fated academic boycott of Israel, which sputtered out last year when the Association of University Teachers voted against it. This new group, which enjoys the support of luminaries such as Lord Rogers, should draw some lessons from this.

By all means let this group of architects criticise the Israeli government's policies, but let them also beware the law of unintended consequences. The academic boycott offended left-wing Israeli academics just as much as right-wing ones. It was later suggested that the boycott should apply only to right-wing universities such as Haifa and Bar-Ilan. But even this became problematic when it turned out that one fifth of Haifa's students are Arab Israelis. Ultimately, the boycott collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. An architectural boycott would suffer the same fate. An effort to halt the construction of the separation barrier, however well intentioned, would simply end up making life inconvenient for blameless Israeli citizens.

Such measures would also send out an unhelpful message. Boycotts are damaging to a nation's pride. There are circumstances in which this can be justified, as in apartheid-era South Africa. But it is counter-productive to apply such techniques to Israel at a time when political events are moving so quickly. Ariel Sharon is no longer on the political stage, and elections are looming. The Hamas victory in the recent Palestinian elections has made many Israelis nervous. Boycotts and sabre-rattling will only make the election of a hard-line administration in Israel more likely.

Attitudes are being re-evaluated in Israeli society. The withdrawal from Gaza has led to the questioning of old assumptions about security. The rest of the world would be well advised to wait to see where all this leads before piling in with ill-considered gestures.