Israelis fret about risk of isolation but concern may be overdone

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's re-election last week has prompted alarmed chatter in the cafes of Tel Aviv and on talk shows about the risk of Israel losing the support of its closest allies and being left isolated in the world.

It is clear Netanyahu still has fences to mend with President Barack Obama, despite rowing back from his rejection of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, which prompted new calls for sanctions from campaign group BDS.

But fears in Israel that another Netanyahu government, this one more right-wing than the last, will lead the country towards isolation appear to be running ahead of reality.

While the United States talks about a “reassessment” of its ties with Israel, it has so far put little flesh on the bones of the suggestion, instead wielding it as a stern verbal warning to Netanyahu not to push the situation too far.

On defense and security, the White House has made clear there will be no change in policy, and Israel's director of military intelligence recently returned from a working visit to Washington saying there was no cause for concern.

Foreign investment flows, which normally react to the possibility of a country being sanctioned or isolated, show no signs of declining: they have risen steadily over the past four months and hit $710 million in January alone.

Figures for March – taking into account any impact from the election – are not released until early May, but the clear trend is upwards. The Tel Aviv stock exchange has gained more than 2 percent since the election and the shekel is steady against the dollar. Moody's is positive.

The biggest concern for Israel is likely to come from its largest trading partner, the European Union, which has repeatedly criticized Israel for its settlements policy in the past and taken steps to restrict loans to research institutes that have operations in the West Bank.

While there is the prospect of further measures along those lines, including EU-wide labeling of Israeli goods produced in settlements, they have long been in the works.

It is not a step that would be taken in reaction to a right-wing prime minister being re-elected, EU diplomats said.

“There will be noise and perhaps some attempts, but nothing real will come of it,” said one.

Even if a number of EU member states were determined to turn up the heat, anything approaching sanctions would require unanimous agreement among all 28 countries. Israelhas several strong EU defenders who would stand in the way of that, including Germany, the Czech Republic and probably Britain.


That is not to say, however, that all is plain sailing for Netanyahu, 65, as he prepares for a fourth term in office.

He is locked in an uphill battle to convince the United States that the emerging deal withIran on its nuclear program is a bad one. His campaign rhetoric, and his partisan speech to the U.S. Congress on the issue two weeks before the election, has done little to win him allies in that fight.

Regionally, too, his anti-Arab comments on election day – accusing left-wing NGOs of busing Arab-Israelis to the polls “in droves” to vote against him – has not enhanced his standing with neighborhood allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

But perhaps the biggest problem Netanyahu faces is stitching back together a deeply divided country, where tensions between left and right have spilled over into abuse since the vote.

His attack on the Arab community left the 20-percent minority angry and feeling isolated and prompted stern words from President Reuven Rivlin.

“People should be careful about what they say, especially people in high places whose words are heard by the whole world,” he said. “We must never forget it is also a democratic state.”

On Saturday, a well-known Israeli author and songwriter was punched at his own home by an unidentified man who called him a “lefty”, “murderer” and “traitor”. Ahinoam Nini, a pro-left singer better known as Noa, said she was verbally assaulted at Tel Aviv airport by two men who called her an “enemy of Israel” and threatened the same treatment as the author.

While Netanyahu won a clear victory, he achieved it with just 23 percent of the popular vote. His emerging right-wing coalition will probably have a sizeable majority, but he will have to work hard to ensure the whole country feels represented.

Palestinians outline Israel isolation strategy

The Palestinian Authority is considering a multi-pronged strategy to isolate Israel, including seeking redress in international courts and ceasing security cooperation.

The Associated Press reported on the strategy in a story published Thursday. Palestinian officials told the AP that they will first press for renewed talks after Israel's Jan. 22 elections but will insist on a settlement freeze as a precondition.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks set for reelection, has rejected another freeze, saying the Palestinians did not come to the table until nine months into the last partial freeze, in 2010, and then left because he would not extend it beyond the 10 months he had pledged.

Should Israel not agree to those terms, the officials say, they will seek war crimes charges against Israelis in international courts, will lobby for sanctions on Israel, organize mass protests and suspend the security cooperation in the West Bank that has helped maintain the peace there while the Gaza Strip, under Hamas control, has exploded into violence multiple times in recent years.

“There will be no security cooperation as long as there is no political horizon,” Mohammed Ishtayeh told the AP.

Panetta: Israel must address its growing isolation

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called on Israel on Friday to take diplomatic steps to address what he described as its growing isolation in the Middle East.

Panetta, in prepared remarks that he was due to deliver in Washington on Friday evening, stressed U.S. efforts to bolster regional stability and to safeguard Israel’s security.

“Israel, too, has a responsibility to pursue these shared goals—to build regional support for Israeli and United States security objectives,” Panetta said, according to portions of the speech released to reporters before delivery.

“I believe security is dependent on a strong military but it is also dependent on strong diplomacy. And unfortunately, over the past year, we’ve seen Israel’s isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow.”

Panetta lamented the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, which he said had “effectively been put on hold.”

Panetta’s comments echoed remarks he made on a visit to Israel in October, his first since taking over as defense secretary in September.

Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, in 1949, but relations worsened last year when Israeli commandos boarded an aid flotilla challenging a naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, killing nine Turks in ensuing clashes.

Israel is also closely watching developments in Egypt, where the country’s new rulers may be more susceptible to widespread anti-Israeli sentiment than it was under ousted president, Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptians voted on Friday in the opening round of the country’s first free lection in six decades. The Muslim Brotherhood’s party and its ultra-conservative Salafi rivals looked set to top the polls.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Christopher Wilson

Gilad: Israel faces isolation ‘no less severe than war’

The chief of Israel’s diplomatic-security bureau warned this week that Israel faced an isolation “no less severe than war” should the United Nations recognize Palestine as an independent state this September.

In remarks carried by Channel 10, General (res.) Amos Gilad said behind doors that the Palestinian Authority leadership was organizing an “international assault against Israel”.

The Palestinians have warned that if peace talks with Israel do not resume by the deadline set for December, they will ask the UN general assembly to recognize their sovereign state.


Olmert: Netanyahu leading Israel to political isolation

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

Speaking at an Industry, Trade and Labor ministry conference, Olmert said that the government’s refusal to accept the United States request that Israel extend a freeze on West Bank settlement construction for two months could lead to Israel’s political isolation in the world and damage Israel’s economy.

“There are people who think it is possible to separate the political situation from the economic situation and they use the phrase ‘economic peace’,” Olmert said, alluding to Netanyahu. “This is a lovely phrase but it reality doesn’t exist.”