Published: March 18, 2009
JERUSALEM – Israel, whose founding idea was branded as racism by the United Nations General Assembly in 1975 and which faced an Arab boycott for decades, is no stranger to isolation. But in the weeks since its Gaza war, and as it prepares to inaugurate a hawkish right-wing government, it is facing its worst diplomatic crisis in two decades.
Examples abound. Its sports teams have met hostility and violent protests in Sweden, Spain and Turkey. Mauritania has closed Israel”s embassy.
Relations with Turkey, an important Muslim ally, have suffered severely. A group of top international judges and human rights investigators recently called for an inquiry into Israel”s actions in Gaza. “Israel Apartheid Week” drew participants in 54 cities around the world this month, twice the number of last year, according to its organizers. And even in the American Jewish community, albeit in its liberal wing, there is a chill.
The issue has not gone unnoticed here, but it has generated two distinct and somewhat contradictory reactions. On one hand, there is real concern. Global opinion surveys are being closely examined and the Foreign Ministry has been granted an extra $2 million to improve Israel”s image through cultural and information diplomacy.
“We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits,” said Arye Mekel, the ministry”s deputy director general for cultural affairs. “This way you show Israel”s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
But there is also a growing sense that outsiders do not understand Israel”s predicament, so criticism is dismissed.
“People here feel that no matter what you do you are going to be blamed for all the problems in the Middle East,” said Eytan Gilboa, a professor of politics and international communication at Bar Ilan University. “Even suicide bombings by Palestinians are seen as our fault for not establishing a Palestinian state.”
Of course, for Israel”s critics, including those who firmly support the existence of a Jewish state, the problem is not one of image but of policy. They point to four decades of occupation, the settling of half a million Israeli Jews on land captured in 1967, the economic strangling of Gaza for the past few years and the society”s growing indifference toward the creation of a Palestinian state as reasons Israel has lost favor abroad, and they say that no amount of image buffing will change that.
Israel”s use of enormous force in the Gaza war in January crystallized much of this criticism.
The issue of a Palestinian state is central to Israel”s reputation abroad, because so many governments and international organizations favor its establishment in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. And while the departing government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert negotiated for such a state, the incoming one of Benjamin Netanyahu says that item is not on its immediate agenda.
Javier Solana, foreign policy chief for the European Union, said in Brussels on Monday that the group would reconsider its relationship with Israel if it did not remain committed to establishing a Palestinian state.
Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu is expected to appoint Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, as his foreign minister. This alone has Israelis and their allies in Europe and the United States worried because of Mr. Lieberman”s views of Israeli Arabs that some have called racist.
Mr. Lieberman had campaigned on the need for a loyalty oath in Israel so that those who did not support a Jewish democratic state would lose their citizenship. One-fifth of Israeli citizens are Arabs, and many do not support defining the state as Jewish.
Mr. Lieberman also has few fans in Egypt, which has acted as an intermediary for Israel in several matters. Some months ago Mr. Lieberman complained that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had not agreed to come to Israel. “If he doesn”t want to, he can go to hell,” he added.
“Imagine that Hossein Mousavi wins the Iranian presidency this spring and he names Mohammad Khatami as his foreign minister,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst in Israel, referring to two Iranian leaders widely viewed as in the pragmatist camp. “With Lieberman as foreign minister here, Israel will have a much harder time demonstrating to the world that Iran is the destabilizing factor in the region.”
Of course, all of this is being seen in the context of a new, Democratic administration in the United States that has announced a desire to press for a two-state solution. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has already criticized Israeli plans to demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and her department has criticized Israel”s banning of certain goods from Gaza.
This represents a distinct shift in tone from the Bush era. An internal Israeli Foreign Ministry report during the Gaza war noted that compared with others in the United States, “liberals and Democrats show far less enthusiasm for Israel and its leadership.”
The gap between Israelis and many liberal American Jews could be seen Tuesday in a blog by Bradley Burston, who writes on the Web site of the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz. He said that while visiting Los Angeles he faced many questions that amounted to “What is wrong with these people, your friends, the Israelis?”
He quoted an article by Anne Roiphe, an American Jewish liberal, which said that witnessing the popularity of Mr. Lieberman in Israel made her feel “as if my spouse had cheated on me with Mussolini.”
She added: “We here in America are waiting as of this writing for a government to emerge in Jerusalem, and most of us keep on hoping that its shape will not preclude the peace process, will not doom a two-state solution, will not destroy the hope that our new president brings to the table.”
Mr. Burston pointed to the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza into Sderot and other Israeli cities and towns and titled his piece “The Racist Israeli Fascist in Me.”
Some Israeli officials say they believe that what the country needs is to “rebrand” itself. They say Israel spends far too much time defending actions against its enemies. By doing so, they say, the narrative is always about conflict.
“When we show Sderot, others also see Gaza,” said Ido Aharoni, manager of a rebranding team at the Foreign Ministry. “Everything is twinned when seen through the conflict. The country needs to position itself as an attractive personality, to make outsiders see it in all its reality. Instead, we are focusing on crisis management. And that is never going to get us where we need to go over the long term.”
Mr. Gilboa, the political scientist, said branding was not enough.
“We need to do much more to educate the world about our situation,” he said. Regarding the extra $2 million budgeted for this, he said: “We need 50 million. We need 100 million.”