By Andrew Wilson
Israel believes it a virtue to exert strength, but one thing the country does not seem to understand is the amount of self-harm it causes when targeting Palestine. In the past, there was widespread sympathy throughout the world for Israel as a plucky victim of persecution and terror doing what it needed to defend itself. But as this electronically informed generation is exposed to images of the occupation of Palestinian lands and the imprisonment of its people, a different view of Israel is gaining traction—that of an oppressor nation.
Israel’s most recent folly, on August 5, was to position itself as Master of Entry in and out of the West Bank and bar foreign ministers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Cuba, and Algeria from travelling to Ramallah. Cuba and Algeria may be perceived as threats, but Malaysia and Indonesia? This is a clear affront to important nations that have large trading interests all over the world. Does Israel think that its specious excuse about lack of diplomatic relations carries any weight, considering the gravity of the international conflict they came to address?
Israel seems to have lost its sense of proportion. The country seems to think that it is at war with the Palestinians and because of that, any tactics that bring short-term gain can be justified. The rest of the world is astonished, because it understands that resolving the Israeli–Palestinian problem requires diplomacy, not perpetual conflict. A diplomatic solution will require wisdom, perseverance, and even a keenness to be genuine.
Juxtapose this incident with the further folly reportedly coming from the Prime Minister’s office: an Israeli offer to release 100 or so Palestinian prisoners and permit the development of gas fields off the coast of Gaza, but only on the condition that the Palestinian Authority withdraw its planned application at the UN General Assembly. If there were any seriousness about restarting peace talks, Israel would be unconditionally releasing prisoners as a gesture of goodwill and then asking the PA what else it might do. That is what is needed to sow the seeds of trust, and even then Israel would have to continually show itself trustworthy.
If Israel is actually going to release prisoners, the world would like to see it. Otherwise, the world will simply ignore such reports of Israeli offers as fabrications. The last time the world community saw Israel act genuinely toward the Palestinians was in the Shalit affair, when the release of one Israeli prisoner led to the release of many more Palestinians. One can understand Israel’s desire to protect its citizens, but genuineness is supposed go beyond tactics.
This year Prime Minister Netanyahu showed himself to be fundamentally a man of tactics, in the short-lived tenure of Shaul Mofaz in the government. It ended up bringing more discredit to Netanyahu, who in May had promised to work with Mofaz to incorporate the ultra-Orthodox Jews into universal military service. But by July he reversed himself and sent Mofaz packing, when he saw that it was to his tactical advantage to side with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Now even ordinary Israelis have taken to the streets to protest his broken promises. Netanyahu has proven he lives for the moment, and now his calculations seem entirely focused on the goal of living out his term in office.
It is clear that the General Assembly would welcome Palestine as a non-member state. Even if Israel and the US take punitive measures to restrict Palestinian trade and smother its budget, as they have threatened to do, it will not stop the world from granting statehood at the UN General Assembly. Once statehood is granted, there is no going back. Statehood clarifies that Israel is an occupying power, and this fact will make a difference to the world. The world long ago caught on to the use of the term “Judea and Samaria” as a linguistic annexation of the same territory known as the West Bank. Meanwhile, the government of Israel continues to shoot itself in the foot by supporting settlers’ efforts.
As a UN-certified state, the Palestinians will have more power to fight these intrusions into their lives, for example by bringing its complaints the International Criminal Court. If Israel fails to comply there will be sanctions, even if the United States sits them out. The real question is, will the EU sit out sanctions as well? Currently the EU seems to be indulging Israel, but in time it will be forced by public opinion to stop playing the role of an enabler. When the hammer drops on Israel in the form of sanctions, Israel will have no one but itself to blame.
Only Israel’s willing participation to draw a border can change this outcome. The Palestinians may refuse to come to the table as long as Israel expands settlements, but the world understands the Palestinians’ mistrust. Israel does not have an inherent right to the West Bank, not in the eyes of the world. Israel could stop all this madness by freezing settlements, but King Bibi has not been a good king. Ask Shaul Mofaz.
It seems few in Israel have the guts to stand up to the king. Yes, Israeli democracy can be effective if there is real movement. Many good-hearted Israelis want peace, but the bottom line is they have to work harder for it. The votes have to be found in Israel for internal change. The current social movements in Israel are attempts to take stock of the realities required for change, but only hard work by leaders willing to form durable coalitions can bring about real change.
I hope that Israel does not continue to harm itself in the world’s eyes, but there is still a very insular reality about Israel when it comes to politics and views. With its cozy relationship with Washington, Israel has had the luxury of keeping its own views and acting as it likes. This is what Netanyahu was banking on when he brought over Republican candidate Mitt Romney last week to speak in Jerusalem. But exploiting American support for Israel for a partisan campaign speech may have perversely begun to unravel any consensus that American supporters may have had, as U.S. commentators are talking more loudly in the media about Israel’s failure to engage with the peace process.
The world will not abandon Palestine. Regardless of what Israel does, once it is put to a vote at the UN, Palestine will become a state. That reality, sooner or later, will contribute to change on the ground—especially if sanctions begin to take a bite out of the economy. No nation can afford the economic costs of a worldwide boycott, not without a benefactor. Perhaps American dollars can rescue Israel, for now, anyway. But what happens when, four years from now, Israel’s mistreatment of Palestine becomes a campaign issue and those funds are gone? Finally, Israel will have to submit to the weight of international opprobrium and bring forward the final withdrawal from the West Bank, with some settlers following the troops home.
This is the history that is likely to play out, a history written by world opinion. How, then, can Israel afford to be so callous on the world stage? Every day it remains within its insular, looking-glass reality adds to the eventual cost of such policies. What a pity, when Israel could avoid this. How? Freeze settlements, support the Palestinians’ bid at the UN, and get moving toward negotiations. Show the world where you think your border should be. Do not continue to hold your tongue; it only plays against your hand.
Future generations are not lining up to be as kind to Israel as those of the past. Those born today will not have much connection with World War II, which when they reach their 20s will be nearly 100 years past. By midcentury, even the Holocaust will be regarded by most of the world as ancient history. Yet the millions of Palestinians will not be forgotten.
Andrew Wilson, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.
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