Stephen Hawking is right, it's time to end international support for Israeli impunity

As long as Israel can count on a blank cheque from the international community, it will continue to displace more Palestinians and further abuse and curtail their rights.

Stephen Hawking’s decision to withdraw from Israel’s President Conference deals a huge blow to Israel’s attempts to whitewash its crimes by branding itself as a technologically advanced liberal democracy. His decision highlights the growing consensus that Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is intolerable. More than that, Hawking has made an immensely significant contribution to the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel that has in recent years won support from musicians, artists, trade unions, faith groups and people all over the world.

Such effective forms of solidarity are badly needed in the face of government inaction. A ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004 on the illegality of Israel’s Wall and settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories failed to persuade western governments to take action against Israel’s continued violations of international law. The reality is that Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people are only made possible through the continued financial, military and diplomatic support it receives from western states.

Palestinian civil society thus joined in 2005 to call for broad boycotts, divestment initiatives, and sanctions against Israel, until Palestinian rights are recognised in full compliance with international law. This call was endorsed by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions, and social movements.

While Matt Hill argues that “the problem with the BDS campaign is that the message it sends Israel is anything but clear,” the demands set out in the BDS call could not be any more straightforward: Israel must comply with international law. It must end the occupation, respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and guarantee equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Campaigns against institutions operating in the Occupied Territories, the kind Hill recommends, are indeed taking place and play a major role in the growth and success of BDS. Such campaigns, including boycotts of and divestments from Elbit, Veolia, Sodastream, Ahava, and numerous other companies, can be hugely powerful. French multinational Veolia looks set to end some aspects of its involvement in illegal Israeli settlements after losing billions of pounds worth of local government contracts in the UK and across Europe in the wake of BDS campaigns against it. Facing complaints from its members, the Co-operative supermarket chain agreed not to source fruit and vegetables from any Israeli company that operate inside illegal Israeli settlements. Campaigners are now pressuring Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets to do the same.

Israel’s human rights violations however are not just limited to settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Bedouin community of Al-Arakib has seen its village in the south of Israel bulldozed more than 50 times. In Gaza, Palestinians live under a brutal siege and millions of Palestinian refugees languish in refugee camps outside their homeland.

Likewise, campaigns seeking to end the international support on which Israel’s continued impunity relies cannot focus solely on the settlements. One major BDS campaign targets security giant G4S over its contract to equip and service prisons inside Israel at which Palestinians prisoners, including children, are held without trial and subjected to torture. In the past year, banks, charities and universities across Europe have cut their ties to G4S, hitting the company’s bottom line and ensuring that there is a price to pay for corporate complicity with Israeli crimes.

Public appearances in Israel by prominent figures help Israel portray itself as a state like any other. Like Hawking, many other eminent figures including Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Alice Walker, Iain Banks have pledged not to participate in events inside Israel in order to put pressure on the government to abide by international law. News of Hawking’s cancellation was front page news in Israel, reminding Israelis that the status quo is unsustainable and that their country is becoming a pariah in the way that South Africa once was.

Negotiations lead nowhere, not because Palestinians have insisted on a “fantastical goal”, as Hill argues, but because, ultimately, the outcome of any negotiation closely reflects the balance of power between the negotiating sides. As long as Israel can count on a blank cheque from the international community, a toothless world public opinion, it will continue to displace more Palestinians and further abuse and curtail their rights. The purpose of BDS is to alter the balance of forces that maintains the current situation.

There is another aspect in Hawking’s support for BDS that Hill sadly misses. In his letter to the organizers, Hawking makes a point of explaining that his decision to withdraw was based first and foremost on the advice of his Palestinian colleagues, academics whose freedom of speech, movement, teaching and learning is denied daily by Israel’s occupation. To support Palestinian rights means little without the fundamental willingness to listen to Palestinians voices who are best positioned to explain why Palestinians advocate a global, non-violent campaign of BDS and see it as a necessary and effective form of solidarity.

Rafeef Ziadah is a member of Palestinian BDS National coordinating committee and Senior Campaigns Officer with War on Want

A woman shows a palcard reading 'Israel criminal, boycott Israel' during a demonstration on November 17, 2011 in eastern France. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafeef Ziadah is a member of Palestinian BDS National coordinating committee and Senior Campaigns Officer with War on Want

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Clinton vs Trump: How does the electoral college work?

A brief history.

If you have even the vaguest awareness of US politics, you'll no doubt recall the role Florida played in the 2000 presidential election. The result in the state was so close that arguments about recounts and hanging chads went on for weeks, before the result was finally settled – and the next president decided – by the US Supreme Court.

The odd thing about Bush v Gore, though, is that nobody questioned which of the two had more votes: it was Al Gore, by more than half a million. (The number of contested votes in Florida was something like a tenth of that.) To put it another way, it was always clear that more Americans wanted Gore as president than Bush.

And yet, the outcome of the election ignored that entirely. It turned instead on who had won Florida. That, the Supreme Court decided, had been Gore's opponent: George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States, and the rest is history.

So why did a man who everybody agreed had come second become president? Why did the whole thing end up turning on the number of votes in a few counties of former swamp?

History and geography

The answer comes down to that weirdly undemocratic American invention, the electoral college. The founding fathers, you see, did not actually intend for the president to be chosen by the people.

Much of the constitution was the work of the over-achieving Virginian delegation to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Their plan, written by James Madison, suggested that the president should be chosen by Congress.

That idea was rejected on the grounds that it would undermine the president's independence. Some delegates feared that allowing a bunch of men who spent all their time locked in a room together arguing pick the head of state would lead to “intrigue” (yes), and suggested the president should be chosen by popular vote instead.

So they settled on a compromise. Each state would pick “electors” – how they did so was their own business – and these would in turn pick the president. Senators and congressmen were specifically barred from becoming members of this electoral college; but an aspect of the original plan that survived was that the number of electors in each state would be equal to the number of representatives it had it Congress.

Some of the oddities in this system have been ironed out over time. By the mid 19th century most states were choosing electors by popular vote: the presidential election may be indirect, but it's an election nonetheless. After the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, those who lived in Washington DC, previously disenfranchised because it isn't a state, were given the vote too (it gets three votes in the electoral college).

But others anomalies remain. Here are three:

1) A lack of proportion

One of the big issues in 1787 was persuading the original 13 states to agree to the new constitution at all. Many of the smaller ones (Delaware, New Hampshire) were nervous that, by joining the union, they would instantly be dominated by their much bigger neighbours (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts).

To keep them on board, the Constitutional Convention agreed the “Great Compromise”. The size of the delegations each state sent to the House of Representatives would be roughly proportional to the size of its population; in the Senate, though, every state would get two senators, whether it had several million people, or three old blokes and a dog. In other words, the US constitution had to deliberately over-represent smaller states in Congress, just to persuade them to sign up to the thing in the first place.

All this still applies today – and because size of a state’s delegation to Congress determines the number of votes its gets in the electoral college, smaller states are over-represented in presidential elections, too. The result is that a vote in California is worth less than a third of a vote in Wyoming:

Image: Fzxboy/Wikimedia Commons.

2) A lack of faith

The people don't choose the president: the electoral college does, with electors generally voting based on the votes of the people in their state.

But the operative word there is “generally”: while most states have laws requiring electors to vote with the popular will, or rendering their vote void if they don't, some 21 states do not. So, occasionally, there are “faithless electors”, who don't vote the way their state wants them to. In the 57 presidential elections between 1788 and 2012, there have been 157 incidents of such faithlessness (although, to be fair, in 71 cases this was because the electorate's preferred candidate was dead).

This has never affected the outcome of an election: the closest was in 1836 when the Virginia delegation refused to vote for vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson on the grounds that he was having an affair with a slave. (Being massive racists, they were fine with the slavery and the abuse of power; it was the interracial sex they had a problem with.) But Martin Van Buren's election as president was never in doubt, and even Johnson was confirmed after a vote in the Senate.

Even in those states which don't have laws to punish faithless electors, becoming one is still often a bloody stupid thing to do, since it generally means betraying the party that made you an elector in the first place, an act which will almost certainly wreck your career. Nonetheless, it is constitutionally possible that, when the electoral college meets after November's election, some of its members will ignore the result entirely and propose, say, Kevin Spacey as the next president. And those are the votes that count.

3) A lack of interest

The biggest oddity of the system though is the fact of the electoral college at all. The voters don't pick the president: the electoral college does. The result is that presidential campaigns need to focus not on individual voters, but on states.

Most states allocate their electoral votes on a winner takes all basis. There are two exceptions to this: Nebraska and Maine both hand out one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district, and two to the state-wide victor. This rarely makes any difference, since both states are small, and any candidate who carries the Maine 2nd is likely also to have carried the whole of Maine. Just occasionally, though, it does: in 2008 Obama narrowly carried the Nebraska 2nd (Omaha, basically), prompting grumpy local Republicans to redraw the boundaries to dilute the local Democratic vote and so ensure this wouldn't happen again.

In the vast majority of states, however, winning 50.1 per cent of the vote will be enough to get you 100 per cent of the electoral votes. In an election with more than two candidates, indeed, you don't even need to do that: a simple plurality will get you 100 per cent of the vote, too.

This, combined, with demographics, mean we already know how something like 363 of the 538 electoral votes on offer will go. Only around 13 states are considered competitive this year. In the other 37, plus the District of Columbia, we might as well already know the result.

The result is that, for the next few weeks, there will be endless reports about Florida, Virginia and Ohio. But you're not going to hear so much about how voters are feeling in California or Delaware or Arkansas or Texas. The first two will go for Clinton; the last two will go for Trump. The campaigns will ignore them; the voters may as well not show up. State-wide demographics mean the result is already clear.

In a true popular election, every vote would count equally. In the electoral college, they do not. The result, 16 years ago, was four weeks of legal wrangling over a few hundred votes in Florida. The result, this year, is that it’s entirely possible that Donald Trump will become president – even if Hillary Clinton gets more votes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.