Israelis concerned about international isolation

Israel is no stranger to international condemnation. Although the Israeli people, who are often characterized as “resilient” and “tough,” normally earn that appellation in the context of returning to normal life following some horrific event, some explain their impermeable exteriors as being more the product of a seemingly un-ending series of censures than surviving in a bad neighborhood.

Yet, many are suggesting that the present mood of the country is more anxious than usual; that a national anxiety exists today that is nearly unprecedented and that at its core lies a growing debate over whether a creeping isolationism between the Jewish state and its traditional allies is more palpable and precarious than the nation’s leaders care to let on.

In recent days, Israeli have been reading and viewing acerbic remarks aimed at the Jewish state by Western leaders seen as friends and even supporters. While some will quickly discount the issue, documenting their opinions with references to the public relations disasters surrounding the Gaza Flotilla in May 2010; or Operation Cast Lead, the December 2008 military invasion of the Gaza Strip and the Goldstone Report coming out of it; those de rigueur shots at Israeli policy lacked the nuance and innuendo now being heard following the Netanyahu government’s announcement that the planning of 3,000 additional housing units to be located on land Israel acquired in the 1967 war – land that the Palestinians claim for a future state – has been green-lighted. For the first time – or at least the first time with a sense of plausibility – suggestions that sanctions might be forthcoming are coming from allies and pundits are nearly uniform in warning that European leaders, in particular, have “had enough” with the annoyances they’re used to seeing from Israeli leaders is causing concern on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

During the past year when the most frequently discussed Middle East-related issue was whether Israel would launch a unilateral strike at Iranian nuclear installations, the expression “existential threat” took its place atop the regional lexicon. To Israelis, though, a second “existential threat” was playing out: safe-guarding the sanctity of the US-Israel relationship amid constant suggestions that some form of tit-for-tat warfare between the two nations’ leaders was brewing. Now, while speculation over what the second Obama term will mean for a Netanyahu-led government in Jerusalem remains a favorite game for political junkies, the Palestinian UN gambit that has again cast Israel in the villainous light – a source of confusion for Israelis — and has trigger concern in no small part because of the reactions of individual leaders. 

Following the flotilla and Gaza invasion, references to sanctions came from the Arab sector, not Western capitals. This time around, many Israelis are unnerved that Britain and France were the sources of such suggestions; and are unsettled to see unmasked anger in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps the European head-of-state most respected by Israelis.

Judy Dempsey, editor-in-chief of European Strategy, explained to The Media Line that there is an absolute consensus among the Europeans concerning the need for a two-state solution and, “it’s exactly because Angela Merkel is such a staunch supporter of Israel that she is ‘so very angry.’ She sees the policies adopted by Israel about the settlements as undermining the two-state solution – undermining her hopes.”

Nevertheless, Dempsey sees little likelihood that actual sanctions will result. In fact, she says that, “Israeli diplomats feel more isolated than the reality.” But she hopes the perception will spur both sides to “re-assess the situation and decide what they actually want to do.”

“The announcement [about Israeli housing starts] coming right after the decision by the United Nations [to bestow non-member status on the Palestinian Authority] exacerbated things because it was seen as an act of defiance and irked [Israel’s] friends,” Yossi Mekelberg, Associate Fellow at the U.K.’s Chatham House and Project Director of International Relations for Regent’s College, told The Media Line. Referring to action by many European governments following the announcement, he said that, “Calling in ambassadors is a sign of annoyance. The question is whether it will be followed by a change in policy toward Israel.” Mekelberg opined that such a policy shift is less likely in Washington than in European capitals. He also cautions to look to the second Obama term-in-office when, “President Obama might not veto resolutions specifically about settlements.”

Mekelberg concludes that Israel is right to worry about the possibly-changing relationships. “The level of annoyance is even higher than what is expressed in public, and because the Europeans are Israel’s major political, military and economic allies, I think the Israelis should be worried.”

Prof. Shmuel Bar, Director of Studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya disagrees in part. He told The Media Line that what happens in the United Nations is not an indication of anything “because the Arab/Muslim bloc has always had an automatic majority. Relationships are not only political, but are economic and cultural. I don’t think countries are going to give up relationships with Israel which is more stable and representative of Western culture in favor of others [that are less stable],” he said.

Bar also raised the matter of the Palestinians’ own part in the fray. He explained that, “Governments realize that Israel makes problems with all sorts of declarations of building, etc., but the Palestinians aren’t even interested in negotiating and they know that, too.” Accordingly, Bar predicts that while President Obama might withhold the veto on a declaratory resolution, sanctions would not be in the American interest because if they passed, “the next day you’ll have similar attacks on the US.”

The street corner debates will no doubt become more focused along the lines of party politics between now and January 22, the date on which Israelis will elect a new government. But at the same time, citizens will be looking for tell-tale signs of international relationships eroding and isolation growing.