The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be an emotional matter to many Malaysians. While there are diverse opinions on the conflict, the pro-Palestinian sentiment is firmly in the majority in Malaysia. Each time the conflict between Israel and Palestine flares up, the pro-Palestinian side will egg the public on to do at least two things. One, they will organize a demonstration in front of the United States embassy on Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur.
The other is a boycott against products sold in Malaysia that the pro-Palestinian side believes has something to do with Israel. McDonald’s has been on the receiving end of the call to boycott, but in a brilliant public relations move involving free burgers, I think the boycott died prematurely.
The truth is the demonstrations and boycotts generate more heat than light. It does nothing practical and significant to affect the situation in Israel and Palestine.
The reason for that is this: Malaysia has no traction with Israel because Malaysia does not maintain any significant relations with Israel. There is no real direct leverage that any Malaysian can use against Israel in the conflict.
To Israel, Malaysia is just that little trading country far out on the other end of the world that has little to do with Israel. Malaysia probably does not even exist to most Israelis, maybe apart from that one time when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed that the Jews ruled the world by proxy at a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference hosted in Kuala Lumpur in 2003.
If Malaysians truly want to have some traction on Israel, then perhaps Malaysia needs to find some leverage on Israel. One of those leverages may involve having an official relationship with Israel, which includes significant trade ties.
The power of a boycott is that it gets to where it hurts when it works, which is the pocket. At the moment, however, there is really no way a boycotting Malaysian can hurt Israel. A successful boycott at the very best hurts those who have ties with Israel and not Israel itself. That has the potential of making more enemies than friends. And influence comes from making the right friends.
As always, the boycotts and demonstrations against Israel are really directed against the United States and anything related to the US. The rationale is that the US is Israel’s greatest ally. Yet, making an enemy of the US is not the best thing to do for Malaysia given how China looms to the north and countries in Southeast Asia sorely need a power to balance Chinese influence in the region. Never mind that the US is one of Malaysia’s biggest trade partners. That means there are a lot of jobs in Malaysia created by US-related corporations.
Look at the boycotters’ favorite target: McDonald’s. Who do they employ? They are mostly Malaysians. In fact, who owns the McDonald’s franchise in Malaysia? Malaysians. So, the ones who would have been hurt by a boycott launched by the pro-Palestinian camp are Malaysians first. Israel itself is probably somewhere down the list, receiving the least brunt of all, if any.
With significant economic ties with Israel, perhaps Malaysians with strong opinions on the matter can do something more practical. With such links, the threat of a Malaysian boycott has a real and direct impact on Israeli interests. With interests in Malaysia which are susceptible to a Malaysian boycott, maybe then Israel may want to take Malaysian voices more seriously.