Friday, September 16, 2011

Israel's Isolation Problem -- Turkey, Egypt, the UN... Just What is Going On?

Israeli Radio's morning news anchor Aryeh Golan 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 conceive of a scenario in which the UN General Assembly's automatic majority would not rubber stamp Mahmoud Abbas's unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. In increasingly anarchic Egypt, a bad situation turned dramatically worse over the weekend requiring the rescue of six besieged Israeli Embassy security guards from a Cairo lynch mob.

Against the background of roiling Arab uprisings from Damascus to Cairo and from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf – none of which has anything to do with Israel – censorious voices continued to fault the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Israel's increasing isolation. The critics range from a habitually unsympathetic global media, to wobbly friends in the U.S. and EU, to domestic Israeli pundits and opposition politicians.

Why, critics ask, doesn't Israel take "bold conciliatory" steps toward the Palestinians? Why does it adhere to its demand that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state? Why won't Jerusalem prostrate itself before Ankara, lift the blockade of Gaza and thereby allow Hamas to solidify its control of the Strip unhindered? Why must Jerusalem carp so persistently about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons when so many European countries not to mention China, Russia and India enjoy a robust commerce with the mullahs?

The critics' disparate voices agree that Israel needs to stop being such a nuisance, such an ingrate in the assessment of former US secretary of defense Robert Gates. In that regard, Jerusalem's diplomatic dependency on Washington during the cascading crises with Turkey, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority has undoubtedly been awkward for all concerned in light of the prime minister's "tense relationship" with President Barack Obama.

For some Euro-left critics, however, Israel is simply irredeemable. David Hearst, an editorial writer at Britain's anti-Zionist Guardian implies that Israel is "a supremacist state" and that, maybe, the Jews deserve to lose their country.

But the voices heard most incessantly by Israelis themselves are those of Netanyahu's domestic critics. Shimon Shiffer, a leading columnist at Yediot Aharanot sounded oddly forbearing of the Egyptian lynch mob noting that, after all, Menachem Begin's pledge to grant Palestinian Arabs autonomous rule never fully transitioned into statehood. Never mind that the PLO torpedoed Begin's autonomy efforts every step of the way and that statehood wasn't the goal.

For Netanyahu critics, it is axiomatic that the Arab street needs to express its frustration. Ben Caspit at Ma'ariv allows that Israel’s erstwhile EU and American friends have a point in claiming that Netanyahu is leading the country toward an "abyss." Gideon Levy at Haaretz nobly acknowledges that "Not everything was Israel's fault" though, ultimately it really is because Israeli "arrogance" is to blame for the deterioration of relations with Turkey and Egypt. Yoel Marcus, also at Haaretz, moans that Netanyahu "is getting on the nerves of the entire world."

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

Indeed, government critics uniformly agree that the absence of "momentum" on the Palestinian track – not necessarily genuine progress toward a sustainable peace, but the absence of the heretofore ubiquitous illusion of momentum embodied in the "peace process" – is responsible for Israel's diplomatic isolation. Following this line of thinking, Netanyahu's failure to maintain the "momentum" at any cost has caused Israel's isolation problem.

On the political front, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the new elder statesman of the Labor Party declared, “If I were Bibi Netanyahu, I would recognize a Palestinian state. We would then negotiate borders and security." And Kadima Leader Tzipi Livni was on the radio to say that were she in-charge Israel would be enjoying fruitful negotiations with the Palestinians because she would not adhere to the requirement that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state; moreover, she would also know better how to finesse the Turks.

This indulgence by Netanyahu's domestic opponents in blaming Israel first may offer them emotional catharsis, but it hardly reflects the view of the general public. A survey conducted for Israel Radio's Reshet Bet (and broadcast on September 1) indicated that in any new elections, Netanyahu's Likud Party would be trump Livni's Kadima (27 Knesset seats to 18). Parenthetically, recent polling of Palestinian Arab opinion suggests an element of ambivalence about Abbas's unilateralist U.N. approach with 59.3% of West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem Arabs wanting to see a resumption of negotiations with Israel.

Anyhow, the critics' policy prescriptions appear strikingly half-baked. Netanyahu's insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is rooted not in semantics but in the idea that only such acknowledgment of Israel's legitimacy would connote a true end to the conflict and negate further claims on Israeli territory. For that very reason, Abbas continues to withhold recognition while insisting on the right to "return" Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and millions of their descendents to Israel proper. Half the Knesset members of Livni's own party, catalyzed by former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, have backed Netanyahu's stance.

As for Ben-Eliezer's risible suggestion that Israel back Palestinian statehood along the vulnerable 1949 Armistice Lines and afterwards negotiate permanent borders and demilitarization, what possible incentive would the already intransigent West Bank Palestinians – who sat cooling their heels during a ten-month long settlement freeze – have for accommodating Israeli security interests? And what sway would Abbas have over Hamas which continues to block "the president of Palestine" from even visiting Gaza?

If Labor's new leader turns out to be Shelly Yachimovich she will likely maneuver the party away from Ben-Eliezer's politically poisonous security positions. So the critics' counsel to "don't just stand there, do something" strikes many Israelis as reckless.

What is more, far from "isolating itself," as Netanyahu's critics claim, Israel's current predicament is largely the product of an unremitting and decades-long onslaught by the Arab camp and its amen corner to divide, isolate and ultimately wipe out the Zionist enterprise. That makes overcoming Israel's isolation problem a moral imperative for all those who champion the values of Western civilization.

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