Israel and the world

Israel and the world

“WAS Israel all a mistake?” asks a lawyer at a debate on the Gazan war in a grand Georgian library in Manchester. None of the 40 or so professionals present says no. In the streets outside noisy, heavily policed anti-Israel demonstrations are taking place. “Death to Jews,” a few protesters chant at ultra-Orthodox Jews on their way home through Broughton Park, in the north of the English city.

As the toll from the war in Gaza rises, its echoes are rumbling in Europe’s streets. Israel says it is fighting terror—trying to halt rocket attacks by Hamas, the strongest force in the strip, and destroy tunnels through which Hamas fighters can raid Israel. But civilians and civilian infrastructure have borne the brunt of Israeli operations. Palestine’s health ministry lists some 1,400 dead since July 8th, of whom four-fifths are civilians; one-fifth of these are children. Palestine’s only power station has been destroyed, as have more than 4,000 homes, some with families inside. Fifty-six Israeli soldiers, including ten on July 28th, three Israeli civilians and a Thai have also been killed. Hamas’s rockets continue to fly, though in smaller numbers.

From Antwerp to Warsaw, demonstrators’ placards have ranged from criticism of Israeli policy (“1,2,3,4, Occupation No More”) to denouncing Israel itself (“5,6,7,8, Israel is a Terror State”) to the most wounding anti-Semitism (“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas”). In France, which has Europe’s largest Jewish and Arab (mainly north African) populations, trouble may be no surprise. But its extent—attacks on synagogues, raids on Jewish shops—has been shocking nonetheless. Even in Oslo, the Jewish museum closed its doors.

Clearly, Europe’s antipathy towards Israel is more than just loud protest. Many Israelis think they can no longer count on public opinion in Europe—and, to a much lesser extent, America—and that where popular sentiment leads, democratic politicians will sooner or later follow. They see the rising number and vehemence of demonstrations against Israel’s wars, and as a result fear “delegitimisation”: the turning of Israel into a pariah state, outside polite international society.

A global poll in and about several countries, conducted for the BBC long before the latest strife in Gaza, reported that negative views of Israel’s influence in the world outweighed positive ones by more than two to one (see chart 1). In aggregate, Americans saw Israel favourably; Europeans did not. But plenty of Americans worry about Israel’s reputation. Barack Obama has fretted about his country’s “limited” ability to manage the “international fallout” were a Palestinian state no longer within reach. Delegitimisation, says Einat Wilf, a former Israeli parliamentarian and one of the authors of a three-year, as-yet-unpublished study of the topic at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem, is becoming “a strategic threat”.

The concept of delegitimisation is not new. But it is acquiring new weight in parts of the world where Israel once felt itself anchored. The JPPI traces the turning-point to the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001, which brought 1,500 government and non-governmental delegations together under the auspices of the UN. Its draft declaration, subsequently amended, condemned Zionism as racism. Since then, says Michael Herzog, a former defence-ministry official and head of the JPPI’s project, networks of Islamist and leftist activists have spread the idea wide.

How wide is a matter of debate. Israel’s supporters paint a picture of rampant anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, under the cover of hostility to Israel. A survey released this year by the Anti-Defamation League said 34% of eastern Europeans and 24% of western Europeans harboured anti-Semitic views—implying that the continent houses 165m Jew-haters. Others are less gloomy. Vivian Wineman, who heads the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella body of British Jewry, notes that spikes in anti-Jewish attacks correlate to bouts of fighting in the Middle East. His French counterpart, Roger Cukierman, says public attitudes are driven “by the images of Palestinian babies on television, which makes [people] very angry.”

Some of the Israeli government’s critics hit back by accusing its supporters of highlighting rising anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere to deflect criticisms of its own abuses of human rights. “Ninety-five per cent of demonstrators have nothing against Jews,” says a French government official and Jewish campaigner for a two-state settlement.

Worried by the threat to their own civil order, Belgium and France have banned protests and arrested scores of participants for defying the ban. But despite this, and a flurry of visits to Israel by European leaders, all upholding the country’s right to self-defence, it is hard to ignore the change in attitudes from decades past. Gone are the days when Israel, with its kibbutzim, was a darling of idealistic young Europeans; faded, too, the idea of Israel as vulnerable and poor, encircled by massed armies.

Businesses and governments in Europe have largely resisted demands for a boycott. That said, retailers have labelled and sometimes stopped importing products made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Israel has held since winning the war of 1967. “Tesco: We’ve axed fruit from Israel,” ran a headline about the British supermarket chain in the Irish Sun on July 27th, referring only to harvests from the occupied Jordan Valley. Others have disinvested from Israeli firms or institutions with settlement-related assets. A Dutch pension-fund manager, PGGM, and Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, have sold stakes in Israeli banks that finance settlement construction. The Netherlands’ largest public water-supplier, Vitens, cut ties to Israel’s water company, Mekorot, which takes water from the West Bank and then sells it back to Palestinians.

European governments have also concentrated their criticism on the occupation. After the collapse of talks between Israel and the Palestinians in April, 17 EU states cautioned their firms against conducting business with the settlements, which “are illegal under international law”. Funding for the Palestinians, said EU officials, could also be affected since the union would no longer meet costs that legally should be borne by the occupying state.

Were Israel and Palestine to conclude a deal on a two-state solution, however, the EU’s Council of Ministers has promised to reward them both with special trading status. And for all its huffing and puffing, Israel enjoys plenty of privileges in its relationship with Europe. It is the sole non-European country participating in Horizon 2020, the EU’s largest research project—although institutions with links to the settlement programme are barred. Last February Germany gave all visiting Israelis the right to obtain six-month work permits.

Once the violence in Gaza subsides, public opinion, a remarkably forgetful and fickle force, may move on. But the more protracted Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians becomes, the greater the risk that the violence and anger at Israel will acquire a life of its own. Once-fringe jihadist groups, says Mr Cukierman, are wooing a growing number of north Africa’s alienated youth to join their cause.

The doubting young

Israel remains much surer of its friendship with America. But even here, tempers have frayed. Last weekend anonymous Israeli officials accused John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, of proposing a Gaza ceasefire agreement tilted towards Hamas. And some Americans, especially the young, are becoming more likely to question the Israeli government’s version of events.

Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly sympathise with Israelis more than with Palestinians—even more so now than they did in the 1990s. But they also show a widening generational split. Younger Americans are far likelier than older ones to say Israel is more responsible than Hamas for the fighting in Gaza. A recent Gallup poll found a majority of those under 30 thought Israel’s actions in Gaza unjustified (see chart 2). Baby-boomers whose views were shaped by Israel’s wars against Soviet-aligned Arab states in 1967 and 1973 may still see Israel as a plucky little David standing up to Goliath. But for many younger Americans, who have mainly seen a powerful Israel occupying the West Bank and battering Hamas, the picture is different.

Another rift is opening too, between liberal American Jews and the conservative Israeli government. Seven-tenths of America’s nearly 7m Jews say they vote or lean Democratic; they strongly back a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Israel’s government has moved to the right in the past decade; and the peace process has ground to a halt. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has piqued Democrats’ anger by spurning Mr Obama’s demands for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Many liberal American Jews, opposed to the settlements and put off by Israel’s rising religious nationalism, have gravitated towards new organisations that support Israel while opposing its government’s policies. The most important of these is J Street, a doveish group founded in 2008 whose members include former officials of Bill Clinton’s and Mr Obama’s administrations. It lacks the political heft of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has for decades promoted bipartisan congressional support of Israel. But the existence of a mainstream Jewish group that criticises Israeli policy has made it easier to dissent without being painted as an enemy of Israel or even anti-Semitic.

Other left-wing Jews have gone further. Jewish Voice for Peace is among a small number of Jewish groups that have declared support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, a Palestinian-led initiative which seeks the economic, diplomatic and military isolation of Israel until it ends the occupation. BDS has had success on university campuses and in some Christian churches. At the far edge of the spectrum, some young, left-wing Palestinian and Jewish Americans have abandoned the two-state solution, advocating a single state of which Jews and Palestinians would be citizens.

Meanwhile, on social media and the internet Americans are seeing more reporting that is critical of Israel: if they are so inclined, they can read the Guardian and watch Al-Jazeera. Last month, when NBC tried to reassign a reporter who witnessed an Israeli bombardment that killed four children playing on a Gaza beach, he was reinstated after a furious social-media campaign. An intense debate over whether Israel exaggerated Hamas’s responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of three teenaged Israeli settlers has been fuelled by tweets sent by reporters for Buzzfeed, a website, and the BBC.

If Democrats have become more critical of Israel recently, Republicans have only grown more supportive. Both Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians tend to vote Republican. Evangelical support for Zionism has solidified since the 1970s, based in part on a biblical conviction that God granted Palestine to the Jews, and in part on a sense of shared values and a common struggle against terrorism and political Islam. Some younger evangelicals have shown sympathy for the Palestinian cause, but they remain at the fringes. Libertarians in the Tea Party have challenged interventionist foreign policies, but to little avail: in March a new congressman, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, even voted against a bill to name Israel an American strategic partner. The bill passed, 410 to 1.

As such margins show, any shift in American popular attitudes towards Israel has yet to be reflected in policy. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously approved resolutions last month supporting Israel’s actions in Gaza. Advocates of Israel’s policies argue that under pressure of war, American Jews will come together in defence of the Jewish state. The violence and anti-Semitism of some European Muslims in recent demonstrations also tends to solidify American Jews’ support for Israel.

Yet the change in American discourse on Israel is real. In one striking example last month, Jon Stewart, a television comedian popular among secular Jews under 50, ran a blistering item denouncing Israeli violence in Gaza. His guest the next day, Hillary Clinton, repudiated his critique, assigning all blame for Palestinian deaths in Gaza to Hamas and its indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israel—the line that has prevailed in American politics since her husband was president. If Mrs Clinton succeeds Mr Obama in 2016, Israel will feel it has less to worry about.

Delegitimising the delegitimisers

In principle, Israel could counter the threat of delegitimisation by changing policy. It would have a chance of securing diplomatic relations with the world’s 56 mainly Muslim countries by agreeing to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and ending its military occupation. “If Israel was to make a real peace with the Palestinians, the incidence of delegitimisation would inevitably subside,” admits Mr Herzog.

But after decades of failed peace talks and with a government ill-disposed to changing course, Israel’s think-tanks offer other, more practical suggestions for limiting the damage to the country’s reputation. One, the Reut Institute, proposes establishing a pro-Israel network, for instance involving evangelical churches, to counter Islamist and leftist ones, and rebranding Israel with liberal images such as gay-pride pageants. Ms Wilf of the JPPI proposes shifting some of the 60 billion shekels ($17.5 billion) Israel spends on its security to the under-appreciated foreign ministry, which has a budget of about 1.6 billion shekels.

Another think-tank, the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, headed by Dore Gold, who is Mr Netanyahu’s senior foreign-policy adviser, focuses on delegitimising the delegitimisers. It places delegitimisation as one of “three Ds”, along with demonisation and double standards—expecting more of Israel than of other states, especially in the Middle East—which it says constitute a “new anti-Semitism”.

But Israel still has many friends

The army sniffs at a reallocation of resources. (“Planes cost more than a blogger,” says an army spokesman.) But there are signs that some in government are taking notice. Yuval Steinitz, the strategic-affairs minister, is seeking 100m shekels to co-ordinate efforts by the army, the foreign ministry, the government press office and other bodies to combat delegitimisation. In the recent Gaza campaign, the government has co-opted universities to its war effort. Several have established “war rooms” with banks of computers where student volunteers use army talking-points to rebut social-media attacks.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has warned the country’s civil-rights groups that they could be branded as delegitimisers if they insist on promoting rights for Israel’s Arab minority and oppose the definition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews. (This week the Knesset banned an Arab member, Haneen Zoabi, for six months for “aggressive behaviour” in anti-war demonstrations.) It is now pondering a more active approach abroad, too. After the anti-Israel protests and attacks on Jews, the Knesset summoned European diplomats. “If European countries fail to protect Jews within their territory, the state of Israel will,” said Israel Hasson, a parliamentarian and former deputy head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency.

Daphna Kaufman of Reut wonders whether Israel is also moving away from Europe. The secular and social-democratic leanings of Israel’s early decades dovetailed with western Europe’s. But the 1m migrants from the former Soviet Union, who arrived in the 1990s, have scant democratic tradition; many seek salvation in a strongman, a Jewish Putin, to rescue Israel from its enemies.

A similar number of national-religious Jews, heavily represented in government, see Israel as part of the divine plan for the Messiah’s coming, and worry that democracy might get in the way. More often now, Israel finds it easier to deal with non-democratic regimes, in the region or in the Asia-Pacific, where politics intrudes less on business. All of that bodes ill for co-operation with the country’s European critics and perhaps its American ones too.

Some hope that the common threat of a jihadist menace will yet induce Europe to treat Israel as its frontline bulwark and to overlook the plight of the Palestinians. “Ours is the fight of the free world,” says Mr Steinitz. But others see only greater divergence ahead. “Within 50 years, Europe’s lingua franca will be Arabic, and Britain will have a Muslim majority,” Moshe Feiglin, a hardline member of Mr Netanyahu’s party, Likud, tells a nodding audience in Bet Shemesh, a commuter town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. His listeners see a future in which Israel is increasingly forced to rely on its own devices—and its own might.


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