Israel’s global standing on the eve of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Donald Trump’s Washington is at its nadir. An international consensus exists on the illegality of the settlement enterprise and Israel’s ongoing presence in the West Bank. Yet in the past two months alone, the present government has done virtually everything possible to further alienate its dwindling support base in the world community — starting with new-found friends, extending to traditional allies, and now targeting central Jewish leaders abroad.
This is neither the way to make friends nor to influence people. It constitutes an extreme form of diplomatic masochism that not only leaves the country entirely vulnerable, but also strips it of its vital normative connection to the democratic world and the values it seeks to pursue. Even the new American administration will not be able to salvage the situation if Israel’s own leadership does not revise its course.
The process of isolation ostensibly peaked this past December with the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which censured Israeli settlements across the Green Line, condemned violence and provocations against civilians, and reiterated support for a two-state solution. This was, undoubtedly, Israel’s greatest diplomatic debacle in decades.
But the Netanyahu government — which vigorously rejected UNSCR 2334 — decided to go one step further and institute punitive measures against its initiators. The process started with the immediate recall of Israel’s ambassadors to Senegal (a predominantly-Muslim state with substantial influence on the continent) and New Zealand (which had just made major overtures to the current Israeli government). Last week, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that they will not be returning, effectively downgrading ties with these states. In addition, the government also withdrew its (minute) aid to Angola, another critical African country, and took the trouble to express its displeasure to the diplomatic representatives of other members of the Security Council stationed in Israel on Christmas day.
What was clearly a strong and perhaps even impulsive reaction, however, appears to have been just the opening salvo of a strategy designed to berate every foreign declaration or action not in accord with the Netanyahu government’s policies. Former President Barack Obama, in his last days in office, received the brunt of Israel’s ire; even Russia’s Putin was not exempt. And France’s Francois Hollande and other leaders from Europe and around the world were denigrated when they gathered in Paris to declare their support for the substance of the UN resolution.
This pattern has continued with even greater intensity in the aftermath of the adoption by the Knesset last week of legislation that retroactively legalizes Jewish construction on private Palestinian lands. This act (variously known as the “Arrangements,” “Regulation,” or “Outposts” Bill, but actually more accurately described as the “Settlements” or Expropriation” Law) effectively annexes Palestinian lands in contravention of international law and possibly of Israel’s own constitutional tenets.
The international uproar following the Knesset vote has been categorical: almost every country in the world — including Netanyahu’s dwindling roster of supporters such as Theresa May of the United Kingdom, Angela Merkel of Germany and, in his own way, even Donald Trump — condemned the move and cautioned Israel on its consequences.
These expressions have not stopped Netanyahu. During his visit to London he expressed his displeasure with purported British government support for “Breaking the Silence,” an NGO founded by soldiers determined to speak out against the occupation. When Belgium’s prime minister, on an official visit to Israel, met with its leaders and with representatives of “B’Tselem” (another leading human rights organizations), his ambassador was roundly reprimanded the following day. Thus, in the last week alone, it seems that the Israeli government has purposefully taken on its closest democratic allies, distancing itself in the process from the core civic values of freedom of expression and association that it holds so dear.
The determination to confront critics at home and abroad culminated this past weekend, when Jennifer Gorovitz, the vice president of the New Israel Fund — a progressive American-based Jewish Foundation, which has funded more than 600 Israeli civil society organizations during the past 38 years — was detained and questioned extensively upon her arrival in Israel for the Fund’s International Board meetings. After her release and the public fallout that ensued, the Israeli Immigration Authority called to say that they hoped she was not overly inconvenienced. No elected government official followed suit.
This act was nothing short of a challenge to American Jewry, whose liberal credentials are an integral part of its identity. This community, strongly committed to justice, equality, inclusion and tolerance, has always been at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights in the United States. It has traditionally overwhelmingly supported Democratic Party candidates and progressive causes. And American Jews have embraced Israel in multiple ways precisely because they view the country as the contemporary embodiment of their Jewish heritage and of their human values. When a representative of their own mainstream is mistreated because she has devoted her life to promoting the principles laid down in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, then a growing disaffection with Israeli policies on a number of issues (ranging from backtracking on the Reform and Conservative prayer rights at the Western Wall to discomfort with the treatment of minorities) can fast become a rift.
Why is the Netanyahu government apparently on a collision course with anyone who dares disagree with it? Much of the answer may be found in the increasingly precarious position of the prime minister. He is not only subject to multiple investigations into improprieties in office, but he is also rapidly losing support in the coalition in general and within his own party in particular. In order to retain his political base, he has become a prisoner of the most extreme elements in his government. Under pressure to renounce the two-state solution and support annexation, locking swords with critics from far and near has become a means to buy a bit more time.
The dangers for Israel of such a strategy far outweigh any immediate advantages for Mr. Netanyahu and his companions. The prime minister will likely find out in the course of this week that with next to no friends in the international community, his dependency on the current occupant of the White House may be far too close for comfort. This will not necessarily improve his maneuverability externally nor secure his situation at home.
Israel’s will not be able to survive in this vise of self-inflicted isolation; its future (much as its past) rests not an ephemeral convergence of interests, but on the forging of lasting alliances based on a commonality of values and a dedication to pursuing these goals. Even in the midst of a sweeping global democratic recession, only adhesion to deep democratic principles can provide the vision and guidance so desperately lacking at this time. Instead of pushing away those who have proven time and again that they care deeply about the country and its future, Israel should embrace their ideals and begin to heed their message.