It feels like we’ve been here before. Terrorists kidnap three Israelis. Rockets are launched on Israeli cities. Millions are forced into bunkers. The public is outraged, demanding security and retaliation. IAF and naval strikes are unable to quell the rockets, and cause large-scale damage to civilian infrastructure. Hostile criticism of Israel, always dormant in too many parts of the world, awakens.
The inevitable ground invasion begins. IDF troops encounter fierce resistance from an insurgency which has had years to build tunnels and bunkers following the unilateral Israeli withdrawal. The IDF wins every tactical engagement, but advances only at heavy loss of life. Civilian casualties mount; critics begin to use words like “genocide” and “war crimes.” An effete UN secretary calls for an end to the “cycle of violence,” without mention of why that violence began in the first place. Cracks appear within the Israeli government, and between Israel and its major ally, the United States. International pressure for a cease fire brings the war to a halt. Israel strikes the terrorists a major blow, but the victory feels hollow.
This reads like a description of Operation Protective Edge, but actually narrates the events of July-August 2006, the Second Lebanon War. Israel’s then-Prime Minister promised “a very painful and far-reaching response” against Hezbollah and “anyone who harbored them” – pointing to Iran. The Chief of Staff proclaimed Israel would “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years” to return the soldiers, who, tragically like the teenagers kidnapped only six weeks ago, were already dead. Hassan Nasrallah, like Mohammed Deif, was said to be hiding in a bunker, fearing for his life; although Israel said “all options are on the table,” when the smoke cleared, he emerged alive. Then, as now, Israel received tremendous criticism for its “disproportionate” response, even as it went through extraordinary measures to limit civilian loss of life.
In this age of asymmetric conflicts between democracies and terrorist organizations, where civilians are deliberately targeted by one side and unavoidably killed as the other defends itself; in this era of imperfect victories, where the vanquished claim victory only because they killed 60 enemy soldiers and shut down an airport, ignoring the fact that they brought misery on their people and sustained far higher combatant losses; in this time of hypocrisy, where the US President freely assassinates terrorists with drones in a land far off – one of whom was a American citizen – but demands Israel negotiate a ceasefire with terrorists firing rockets on its capital city and largest population center; in this world of fake moral outrage, where the three European nations most responsible for the state of the Middle East today (Britain, France and Germany) condemn Israeli policy without even an honest whisper of what they would do were they in the same position; and in this day of too free speech, where those knowing not a thing about the Israeli-Arab conflict are at liberty to compare the IDF to the SS on Facebook, and tweet nonchalantly about genocide in Gaza, it would be natural for Israel to despair that it stands alone. But it does not.
Never again? Muslims rallying in Germany (photo credit: ADL)
Despite the noise generated by the sensationalist media, increasingly radical Muslim diasporas in Europe and South America, and celebrities who seem to want Israel only to turn the other cheek, and in spite of the well-publicized rifts between the American and Israeli governments during the conflict, Israel has a broad spectrum of support across the world. Let us examine these stakeholders, mindful that we should want what we already have, rather than worry too much about having what we want.
- Canada – Canada has surpassed the United States as the most pro-Israel country in North America – diplomatically, at least – and is possibly Israel’s strongest advocate in the world at present. During the present conflict, Prime Minister Stephen Harper clearly placed all the blame on Hamas. Days into the war, he stated that “we hold the terrorist organization Hamas responsible…they have initiated and continue this conflict.” This in spite of the fact that Jews make just 1% of Canada’s population; Muslims comprise three times their numbers and are growing at a much faster rate. Like past American Presidents – from Harry Truman to George W. Bush – Harper’s stance on Israel comes predominantly from his core values, rather than political calculus.
- India – Foreign policy thinkers have long opined on the natural alliance between India and Israel since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1992. Even before then, India was unique in being one of the only countries in the world with no history whatsoever of antisemitic policy or activities. However, India frequently sided with the Palestinians on the world stage. India is, after all, the world’s most populous Muslim country, and India was aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Gandhi, mistaking Zionism for colonialism, referred to it as “a crime against humanity.” But those days are long gone. During this last war, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party blocked parliament from condemning Israel. Modi is also the first Indian premier to have visited Israel. Commercial and military ties have boomed – Israel is India’s second largest weapons supplier, with sales surpassing $10 billion in the last decade. And in 2008 India launched spy satellites on Israel’s behalf, improving its ability to monitor Iran. India also desperately needs Israeli acumen in drip irrigation to feed its 1.2 billion people. Strong cultural commonalities (“they’re just like us!” I’ve heard more than one Israeli say) and the sense of a common threat, will produce possibly the most important strategic relationship for Israel apart from the United States in the years ahead.
- Moderate Arab States – The shift within the moderate Arab world, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, toward Israel during Operation Protective Edge is tectonic. When I lived in Washington, it was common wisdom that two opposing lobbies dominated US Mideast policy: AIPAC and the Saudis. During the second intifada, numerous Saudi “charities” held televised fundraisers for Hamas, donating to the families of suicide bombers, with the full blessing of the government. But if someone in Washington was putting pressure for a ceasefire last month, it wasn’t Riyadh. This time around, the Saudis placed the blame squarely on Hamas, and Hamas fundraisers have become a thing of the distant past. Saudi Arabia did not suddenly become Zionist; the obvious change is the recognition that it now shares the same existential threats as Israel in the post-Arab Spring and gradually post-American Middle East: a nuclear Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, meaning Hamas. This holds even truer for Egypt. For similar reasons as Riyadh, Al-Sisi’s Egypt saw Israel as an obvious ally in its war against the Muslim Brotherhood. Cairo effectively stepped in to the US’s traditional role as mediator of the conflict, as the US slow departure from the Middle East wistfully continues. Egypt not so secretly hoped Israel would go even farther in the ground invasion – which it certainly could have done – leaving less to worry about on the Sinai border. Still, the Egyptians got agreement on the cease fire terms had originally proposed, which Hamas had originally rejected. That, more than the propaganda coming from Hamas’s leaders, is the true indicator of Hamas’s weakened position – exactly what Egypt and Israel want. Even the United Arab Emirates, the land where the Mossad audaciously assassinated Hamas weapons chief Mahmoud al-Mabhouh four years ago, secretly backed Israel in the war, for the same reasons as its larger neighbors, and to oppose Qatar, Hamas’s financial patron in the Gulf. It ought not to take another Gaza war for Israel to (quietly) strengthen these alliances.
- Fatah – Scarcely mentioned in Western commentary on the fighting is that Hamas is Fatah’s mortal enemy, even more than it is Israel’s. The recent façade unity government aside, Hamas hates Fatah because it is secular, tolerant of Christians, willing to reconcile with Israel, and receives military and intelligence training from the US. Recall what happened to Fatah and suspected collaborators with Israel when Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. No one will benefit from a weakened Hamas more than Fatah. Though supremely under reported, it is worth acknowledging, how close Abbas and Israel were to an agreement only weeks before the fighting broke out. Many analysts believe Hamas initiated the war to derail any progress towards a final settlement that would have left it marginalized. The war should solidify understanding in Israel that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are the only realistic alternatives to Hamas in Gaza, and that Abbas, with whatever flaws, is by far the most accommodating Palestinian leader in the century of the conflict.
- US Congress – If Steven Harper is the most pro-Israel leader in the world, American Congress is undoubtedly the most Zionist non-Israeli legislative body. Sometimes it seems even more Zionist than the Knesset (which after all, hosts two sizable blocks that do not recognize Israel as a Jewish state). Support for Israel is one of the last truly bipartisan issues in the American polis. Consider that on July 19, the Senate voted unanimously to support the Israeli invasion of Gaza. If there are other issues in the last decade that receive unanimous congressional votes, they can be counted on one hand. Congress funded most of the Iron Dome, which prevented thousands of Israeli casualties and allowed the Israeli government to manage its response to Hamas far more strategically than against Hezbollah in 2006. When Israel ran low on Iron Dome interceptors during the war, Congress dropped a fierce debate over immigration, and swiftly authorized the funds. The Senate was unanimous; the House voted in favor 395-8. The Obama administration may not share Congress’s unequivocal pro-Israel position, but the founding fathers gave Congress the powers of the purse. Thus Congress (not the White House) supplies Israel with more than $3 billion annually in military aid – one-fifth of its defense budget – and there are no signs that this will abate.
The game changer. Congress paid for the bulk of the Iron Dome and authorized emergency funding during the war (photo credit: Reuters).
- The American Public – support for Israel among Americans of all backgrounds is reflexive. Americans, it seems, genuinely love Israel, regardless of the headlines. And their support has now reached record highs levels, in spite of (or perhaps because of) Operation Protective Edge. The Pew Research Center published a poll several weeks into the fighting showing “massive” support for Israel among the general population, and in particular, Hispanics and Blacks. Compare that to Europe, where antipathy towards Israel is fulminated first by Muslim minorities and second by far-right parties. Poll after poll show a majority of Americans supporting Israel, with only a small fraction favoring the Palestinians. It’s well-known that support for Israel runs strongest among Republicans and Evangelical Christians (and Jews). But even more unique is that solidity with Israel in the United States is non-ethnic and non-partisan. Israel’s least likely advocates often end up being its most outspoken supporters. I cannot count the number of times I have been (pleasantly) surprised by people here who have never even been to Israel intrinsically express their support for its well-being and its defense (“why doesn’t Israel just finish them off?” I’ve heard several times in the last few weeks). This predominantly American phenomenon was epitomized by Bill Maher, a liberal talk show host, who was raised Catholic and is now an outspoken atheist, on his popular show.
- World Jewry – strange as it may sound, those who assume Jewish support for Israel as a given are ignorant of Jewish history, which is a tale of contention, political division, and civil strife as much as it is of unity and like-mindedness. Zionism was not a consensus matter among world Jewry for the first 50 years of its existence; even after the Holocaust, many Anglo and American Jews maintained an arm’s length relationship with Israel. But all that has changed. Israel has become the sole issue that commands deep and broad support among Jews – secular and observant, liberal and conservative, Ashkenazi and Sephardic – across the world. 93% of American Jews sided with Israel during the conflict; they planned solidarity trips (thank you, Michael Bloomberg) and raised tens of millions of dollars to show their support. Last week I attended a fundraiser event in Los Angeles for The ProtectIDF Initiative, a grassroots volunteer-based organization established almost overnight to get critical protective gear to IDF soldiers on the front. ProtectIDF raised $100,000, mostly from young adults and students – in four days. There are similar stories from all over the Jewish world – and the more you know Jewish history, the more you know that none of this should be taken for granted.10,000 people attend a pro-Israel rally in Sydney during Operation Protective Edge (photo credit: WJC).
So never mind the critics. There have always been those with eyes who cannot see, and ears who cannot hear. But we no longer need Zola to shout J’accuse! in our defense. Israel has hundreds of millions – if not billions – of supporters around the world, who admire the country, not because they have to, but because in its struggle they see themselves and find their own values. That is no small achievement for a nation born out of an attempt to annihilate it, when the world fell silent, when no pundits, celebrities or foreign offices flocked to its cause.
This is what is truly meant by ‘light onto the nations’ in the imperfect realities of the 21st century, and why Hamas orders its followers “to embrace death, as the Jews embrace life.” To thrive as a liberal democracy while under siege; to maintain purity of arms at the risk of losing your own soldiers, because you believe that to be categorically right; to trade 1,000 enemy prisoners for just one of your own, because that is the emphasis you place on human life; to defy them in the most banal of ways – going to the market, getting on a plane, keeping your sense of humor – while rockets are falling and there may be still be another tunnel out there. And not to lose hope.
It is the man in the arena, not the critic, that counts. And that is why Israel does not stand alone.