Israel's Isolation Problem

By Elliot Jager
Thursday, September 15, 2011

Aryeh Golan, the morning news anchor for Israeli public radio, summed up the feelings of Israelis on Sunday when he said, "In Turkey the government is against us, in Egypt the mob is against us, and at the UN the majority is against us."

Israel's international isolation is ever more palpable.  Turkey, led by its Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has frozen diplomatic relations.  On the Palestinian front, it is hard to imagine that the UN General Assembly will fail to rubber-stamp Mahmoud Abbas's unilateral declaration of statehood.  In an increasingly anarchic Egypt, a bad situation turned dramatically worse over the weekend when six besieged Israeli Embassy security guards had to be rescued from a Cairo lynch mob.

Censorious voices—a habitually unsympathetic global press, wobbly American and European friends, and opposing Israeli pundits and politicians—continue to fault Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government for Israel's increasing isolation.  Though the sources of the current Arab uprisings were unrelated to Israel, the roiling unrest intensifies the critics' tone.  

Why, they ask, doesn't Israel take "bold" and "conciliatory" steps towards the Palestinians?  Why does it continue to demand that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state?  Why won't Jerusalem apologize to Ankara and lift the Gaza blockade (never mind that doing so would guarantee Hamas control of the Strip)?  Why must Jerusalem carp so persistently about a nuclear Iran when so many European countries, not to mention China, Russia, and India, enjoy a robust commerce with the mullahs?

In other words, Israel needs to stop being such a nuisance—such an ingrate, as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it.

The cascading crises with Turkey, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority have indeed increased Jerusalem's diplomatic dependency on Washington, an awkward situation in light of Netanyahu's "tense relationship" with President Barack Obama.  And for some Euro-left critics, the situation is more than awkward: They view Israel as irredeemable.  One of them, David Hearst of Britain's anti-Zionist Guardian, has implied that Israel is "a supremacist state" and that the Jews may deserve to lose their country.

But the critical voices heard most incessantly by Israelis themselves belong to Netanyahu's domestic critics, who uniformly agree that Israel's diplomatic isolation is not caused by Muslim governments or crowds (after all, the Arab street needs to express its frustration) and that the real culprit is the absence of "momentum" on the Palestinian issue.  What they mean is not genuine progress toward a sustainable peace but the heretofore-ubiquitous illusion of momentum generated by the "peace process."  In the critics' view, it is Netanyahu's failure to maintain the latter type of "momentum," at any cost, that has caused Israel's isolation.

Among Israeli journalists, Shimon Shiffer, a columnist at Yediot Aharanot, was oddly forbearing towards the Egyptian lynch mob—noting that, after all, Menachem Begin's pledge of Palestinian autonomy never led to Palestinian statehood.  (Never mind that the PLO continually torpedoed Begin's autonomy efforts and that statehood wasn't the goal).  Ben Caspit of Maariv thinks Israel's EU and American friends have a point when they say Netanyahu is leading the country toward an "abyss."  At Haaretz, Gideon Levy nobly acknowledges that while "not everything was Israel's fault," Israeli "arrogance" ultimately underlies the deteriorated relations with Turkey and Egypt.  Yoel Marcus of Haaretz harrumphs that Netanyahu is "getting on the nerves of the entire world."

On Saturday night, diplomatic reporter Udi Segal, having interviewed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Israel's Channel 2 just minutes before, not so obliquely blamed him for the siege at the Cairo embassy, citing "lack of momentum" on the Palestinian track.

Among Israeli politicians, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the new elder statesman of the Labor Party, recently declared, "If I were Bibi Netanyahu, I would recognize a Palestinian state"—along the vulnerable 1949 armistice lines—and "then negotiate borders and security."  Kadima Leader Tzipi Livni said that if she were in charge, Israel would be enjoying fruitful negotiations with the Palestinians—because she would not require that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  Yet half the Knesset members of Livni's own party, catalyzed by former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, have backed Netanyahu's stance on Israel as a Jewish state.

Nor does this view of Netanyahu reflect the sentiments of the Israeli public.  A survey conducted for Israel Radio's Reshet Bet, broadcast on September 1, indicated that in any new elections, Netanyahu's Likud Party would trump Livni's Kadima by 27 Knesset seats to 18. The critics' view may not reflect Palestinian opinion, either: A recent poll of Palestinian Arabs suggests an element of ambivalence over Abbas's unilateralist UN approach, with 59.3% wanting to see a resumption of negotiations with Israel.   

On the merits, the critics' policy prescriptions are strikingly half-baked. Netanyahu's insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not just a matter of semantics; it recognizes that only an acknowledgment of Israel's legitimacy would mark a true end to the conflict.  

It is no wonder that the critics' counsel—"don't just stand there, do something"—strikes many Israelis as reckless.   Contrary to the critics, Netanyahu's Israel is not "isolating itself."  Its current predicament is largely the product of an unremitting, decades-long campaign by the Arab camp and its amen corner to divide, isolate, and ultimately wipe out the Zionist enterprise.  That makes the job of overcoming the current isolation a moral imperative for all those who consider Israel the legitimate expression of the Jewish right to self-determination.

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