The fact that international pressure on Israel is rising into a veritable tsunami should not surprise anyone, least of all Binyamin Netanyahu and his recently-installed government. For far too long, the Prime Minister has chosen to ignore the warning signals and to close his ears to the rising clamor against both his policies and his actions on the Palestinian front. It has been much easier for him to dismiss all criticism as a form of anti-Zionism (verging on anti-Semitism) than to analyze the causes for the growing efforts to isolate Israel and to devise ways to ensure its survival and legitimacy over the long-term.
The response of the government to the tidal wide spearheaded by the effort to oust Israel from FIFA, by the decision of Orange to sever its ties with Israel’s cellular giant, Partner, and by the resolution of the UK National Union of Students to join the academic boycott on Israel has exacerbated the situation even more. Once again, Israel’s leaders prefer to belittle the rising international consensus against Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and to attribute it to a world-embracing effort to delegitimize Israel.
By ratcheting up the fear factor and highlighting the pet theme of the ruling coalition that the entire world is against Israel, it may be possible to gain some short-term support at home. But this is definitely not the way to secure Israel’s existence in a volatile Middle East – the one goal which unites Israelis of all political persuasions. To do so, it is necessary to design a strategy that relates both to the context and substance of the growing external displeasure with Israel and the diverse ways by which it is being expressed.
Current dissatisfaction with Israel – which is fast leading to increased diplomatic, cultural, academic and political isolation – stems from deep frustration at the repeated failure to bring about a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general (due to the lack of will or the incapacity of leaders on both sides to take even the most minimal steps to resume talks, let alone to strike a workable accord) and, in particular, from the loss, in the wake of the results of the recent Israeli elections, of hope for change in this regard in the immediate future. In these circumstances, with American, European and international efforts hopelessly stalled, most of those who have invested enormous energies in attempting to broker a deal are simply fed up.
The inability to resolve the Palestinian-Israel conundrum, especially given the extreme fluidity in the region, does not mean that Israel’s continued overrule is acceptable to the international community or that it can be sustained with impunity over time. To the contrary: in the absence of any diplomatic momentum, new techniques – ranging from the quest for recognition of Palestinian statehood in the UN, petitions to the International Court of Justice, boycott of settlement products, mounting efforts to suspend Israel from academic, sports and cultural events and extending to attempts via the global BDS movement to ostracize it entirely – have come into play.
The substance of the message behind the bulk of these (non-violent) measures carried out by diverse civic initiatives is unequivocal: as long as Israel continues to control territories occupied in 1967 and to ignore the right to self-determination of the Palestinian population, it bears the brunt of the responsibility for the continuation of the conflict and all it entails. At issue are not only Israeli policies but its commitment to the values of individual and minority rights so fundamental to democratic governance. The increasingly strident criticism of Israeli conduct is, in most cases, precisely that. Only in some parts of the BDS movement (prompted by vigorously anti-Israel forces) has it spilled over into unconscionable and totally unacceptable calls for eradicating Israel.
Most Israelis, however, heavily influenced by the sweeping rhetoric of the Netanyahu government, fail to differentiate between dissent from Israeli policies emanating from Israel’s ongoing control over another people against their will and efforts to undermine the existence of the state (thus reaffirming deep-seated sentiments of vulnerability which allow them to suppress disturbing realities). They thereby do themselves the gravest disservice.
The hegemonic discourse that lumps together criticism of the occupation and venal attempts to question Israel’s validity as an independent state which serves as the homeland of the Jewish people under the convenient umbrella of “delegitimization” (on the grounds that there is no difference between Israel’s dissenters and those who advocate its destruction) simply magnifies the problem. It alienates many of Israel’s most devoted allies and – much too frequently – depicts them as unrepentant enemies. It gives license to continued settlement expansion (any protest against such moves can be dismissed as yet another example of the unbridled assault on Israel’s being). It provides a ready-made excuse to do nothing about ameliorating – not to speak of ending – the occupation. And it helps to protect the government domestically from the international backlash which inevitably follows upon its leaders prevarications on the two-state solution.
By putting all forms of disagreement with Israel in the same basket and ignoring their many nuances both abroad and at home, Prime Minister Netanyahu is orchestrating a new war, this time against Israel’s so-called delegitimization, which is at the same time disingenuous and dangerous. It is misleading because it sidesteps the urgent need to reexamine Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the regional arena in general and the Palestinians in particular. It is thoroughly irresponsible because it allows for what is by now a global consensus on the illegality (not to speak of immorality) of the occupation to morph into a palpable threat to Israel’s legitimacy.
The government’s current strategy for addressing growing international criticism, as in the past, cannot therefore succeed. It is based on the mistaken assumption that all forms of protest against Israeli moves – including refusing to purchase settlement products or to support projects across the Green Line – are motivated by a sweeping hatred for Israel itself. It insists that Israel is always being singled out, while reprehensible regimes from North Korea and Sudan to Iran and Syria are barely denounced (an argument which contains a curious admission of wrong-doing). It furthers Israel’s marginalization by intimating that the entire world is wrong and only Israel is right, thus fueling its own self-encapsulation. And it deludes itself that heavily-funded rhetorical campaigns can act as a substitute for policy reassessment.
The problem with this strategy is that, unlike military engagements which can be planned and carried out unilaterally and determined on the battlefield, legitimacy, by its very nature, is the antithesis of armed confrontation: it requires partners and is based on a commonality of interests and values. As the FIFA brouhaha demonstrated so dramatically, one cannot play football alone; nor is it possible to forge academic links, cultural ties or trade relations on one’s own. For this reason, if Israel is to retain any hope of regaining its international footing and cementing its global legitimacy, it must listen to the substance of the criticism conveyed repeatedly by those who have not always agreed with its actions but have consistently propped up its fundamental right to exist. This means that now, more than ever before, its leaders must actively seek an accommodation with the Palestinians within the framework of a regional realignment. Anything less can no longer satisfy its closest allies who are the only ones who can ensure its ongoing legitimacy and hence survival.