The American gambling magnate and major Republican party donor Sheldon Adelson is hosting a closed-door meeting of pro-Israel billionaires and activists at his Las Vegas casino this weekend, to combat the burgeoning movement on US university campuses to boycott the Jewish state.
The gathering comes amid growing Israeli alarm at the rise of the decade-old Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in the US and Europe which the government in Jerusalem contends is antisemitic. It says the movement is intent on the destruction of the Jewish homeland because, among other things, some of its leaders support the "one-state solution" of combining Israel and the Palestinian territories into a single country with equality for Jewish and Arab citizens.
However, BDS supporters say Adelson's involvement highlights their cause because he is a vocal supporter of a single state – albeit one in which Israelannexes the occupied territories and denies equal rights to Palestinians who he has derided as "an invented people".
After years of dismissing the BDS movement as marginal and irrelevant, pro-Israel lobby groups have recently promoted laws against it in the US Congress and state legislatures. They include legislation to block the EU from imposing measures against illegal Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.
The issue was also injected into presidential politics last week as a Republican candidate, Ted Cruz, denounced the boycott movement at a dinner with Adelson.
"BDS is premised on a lie and it is antisemitism plain and simple," he said.
Cruz, like other Republican candidates, is seeking financial backing from Adelson, who poured $150m into the Republicans' failed effort to get Barack Obama out of the White House in 2012.
'It is the strong attempting to strangle the weak'
The boycott movement has drawn inspiration from the sanctions campaign against apartheid South Africa and has support in several countries from trade unions, artists such as Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, and religious leaders such as former Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. But Israeli officials are particularly concerned about its rise on US university campuses because they fear the erosion of support among future leaders of the one country Israel regards as a solid ally.
Pro-Israel groups claim the rise of BDS on campus is linked to radical Islam, that it "de-legitimises" the Jewish state and is making Jewish students feel unsafe. But BDS leaders say support is driven by the growing perception of the occupation as a civil rights issue in the face of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's rejection of a Palestinian state and revulsion at Israel's periodic military assaults on Gaza.
Resolutions in support of universities divesting from Israel have passed on seven campuses this year and been rejected on eight others. In December 2013, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The BDS movement is particularly strong at the University of California, which has about 240,000 students.
Yousef Munayyer, director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, said that the Las Vegas meeting and increased political pressure on the BDS movement is a reflection of its growing strength.
"You see a trajectory that follows that famed Mahatma Gandhi quote. First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Now we're at the third stage which is, then they fight you," he said. "We're seeing it in the public pronouncements of Israeli officials. In the adoption of some of those positions by American officials. We're seeing it in legislatures both at the state and federal level in the United States where there are initiatives to pass laws that would make it more difficult to advance BDS victories."
The meeting of what the Forward, which first reported plans for the Las Vegas summit, described as "leading Jewish mega-donors" is to be held at Adelson's casino and hotel, the Venetian. The Forward said that the billionaire organisers include the Hollywood entertainment mogul Haim Saban and an Israeli-born property developer, Adam Milstein.
Several strongly pro-Israel organisations are expected to attend, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federations of North America. But the increasingly influential J-Street, which opposes BDS, was not invited, probably because it is also strongly critical of Netanyahu.
Pro-Israel groups say the BDS movement is a threat to the existence of the Jewish state because it not only calls for an end to the occupation but wants millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now living in Arab countries, to return to their ancestral homes in Israel.
Munayyer said the attempt to paint Israel's existence as threatened is at odds with how it is seen by many young Americans.
"I think it's very counterproductive what they're doing," he said. "The younger generation sees Israel as a powerful oppressor using these massive weapons of war against a stateless people. For billionaires to get together and throw massive amounts of money to try to counter an essentially grassroots movement that is being supported by civil society and by student activists only reinforces that message that it is the strong attempting to strangle the weak."
From campuses to Congress
Munayyer described Netanyahu as one of "the movement's best allies" after the Israeli prime minster campaigned for reelection on his opposition to a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu attempted to backtrack on his rejection of a Palestinian state in the face of strong international criticism, including from Obama. But his original comments were widely seen as reflecting his true position and the White House made it clear it did not believe his retraction.
This week, Obama warned Israel that it "risks losing credibility", adding that "the international community does not believe that Israel is serious about a two-state solution".
That perception is strengthening calls for sanctions as a means to pressure the Israeli government. Pro-Israel groups are pushing back by promoting new laws to combat BDS on university campuses and beyond.
Several state legislatures are debating legislation to deter universities from making a stand against Israeli government policy, including through threats to funding. Illinois has already banned state pension funds from investing in companies that boycott Israel. The Tennessee and Indiana legislators passed resolutions condemning sanctions as antisemitic.
Members of Congress are attempting to attach a bill to a trans-Atlantic trade deal to block European governments from requiring the special labelling of goods produced in illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel is concerned that the EU measure – which then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman likened to the Nazis forcing Jews to wear a yellow star – will add legitimacy to the sanctions campaign.
The influential pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) – whose $100m headquarters was paid for by Adelson – is pushing the legislation which effectively forces the EU to recognise the settlements as part of Israel for trade purposes.
Senator Ben Cardin, the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from pro-Israel groups, introduced the legislation saying the European move is discrimination against the Jewish state.
"The United States should take a stance to make sure other countries that want trade agreements with the United States do not participate in BDS against Israel," he told an Aipac conference.
Jewish Voice for Peace, a US group which supports sanctions, condemned the legislation for "encouraging illegal settlement building while strengthening the far right in Israel".
"From South Africa to the grape boycott to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) tactics have been essential tools used to create a more just society," it said.
Although the focus is now on the BDS movement, the political battle over the Middle East on US campuses has been going on for years.
The University of Illinois is facing a lawsuit for withdrawing the offer of an academic position to Steven Salaita over tweets critical of Israel. The university said the problem was not Salaita's views but his "lack of civility".
In 2011, the board of trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) rejected an honorary degree for the renowned Jewish playwright, Tony Kushner, because his criticisms of Israel were unacceptable to one of the trustees, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld.
Under a tide of criticism, CUNY reversed the slight to Kushner.
The writer Naomi Klein has said "that far too many academic and cultural institutions, critics of Israel find themselves on an invisible blacklist".
Last month, a new website, Canary Mission, was launched to pressure pro-Palestinian students by naming them and threatening their job prospects.
"It is your duty to ensure that today's radicals are not tomorrow's employees," the site warns.
Conservative thinktank the Middle East Forum has targeted university lecturers considered too critical of Israel by encouraging students to report teachers, books and lectures they regarded as hostile to the Jewish state. The forum runs a website, Campus Watch, which has been accused by academics of "McCarthyesque" intimidation.
James Gelvin, a University of California history professor on the so-called "Dirty 30" list of "radical and antisemitic professors," has accused pro-Israel activists of "trying to shut down debate" and ensure "one viewpoint is going to be presented on campus."