Can Israel survive its recent battering in public opinion? Many believe that this may be a defining moment in a long history of Israeli impunity.
Hitherto, Israel’s record of recovery from international censure has been impressive. A string of past misdeeds – the 1982 Lebanon invasion and siege of West Beirut, the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the 2006 Lebanon war, the interminable occupation of Arab land, even the 2008-2009 war on Gaza that should have been decisive – failed to tarnish Israel’s reputation irreparably. Despite strong international condemnation each time, it was always been able to shrug off its critics.
The Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on May 31 is the current object of international censure. But, going by the past, there is no reason to suppose this time will be different. Speculation about growing international isolation that will damage Israel may be just that. This May, Israel gained membership in the prestigious Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, unprecedented for a state of its size. An upgrade of relations with Europe, already a continent most favourable to Israel, is delayed but not cancelled. The fuss over the flotilla assault is fading, and Israel may feel it has succeeded in facing down international condemnation yet again.
Yet, it may not turn out so well this time. Bravado, the flaunting of Israeli power over the US Congress, and the recent success in apparently restoring cordial relations with President Barack Obama cannot disguise a tide of rising panic among Israelis. For a state so wedded to the idea of itself as legitimate, reputable and a worthy member of the world community, the battering this image has received in recent months must be worrying. The international climate of opinion has never been so hostile towards Israel. The savage assault on Gaza had a powerful impact on international public opinion, further aggravated by the flotilla affair, in which nine Turkish humanitarian activists were killed. Israel’s stock invocation of anti-Semitism and security threats is not working. Its partial easing of the Gaza blockade has failed to stem the tide of criticism.
Last month Israel’s only Islamic ally, Turkey, announced a suspension of all military co-operation worth $7.5 billion. Turkish airspace has been closed to Israeli military aircraft. Fear of reprisals has kept Israeli tourists out of Turkey, and Israeli officers have been instructed not to visit there. The UN has insisted on an independent inquiry into events around the flotilla, and not the one Israel proposes. Israel’s hitherto unfettered control over Gaza is further under threat by the European Union’s call for an end to the blockade and its intention to set up a monitoring mechanism for Gaza’s land and sea crossings so that more humanitarian aid can enter unimpeded. Even Israel’s staunchest ally, the US, has called the Gaza siege “unacceptable.”
Relations between Israel and several Western states have been strained since January. The UK and Australia expelled Israeli diplomats in reaction to the illegal use by Mossad agents of their passports in Mahmoud Al Mabhouh’s killing in Dubai. The Polish authorities arrested a Mossad agent accused of involvement. The UK, France, Spain and Italy have demanded firm action over the flotilla attack. On June 14, Israel’s defence minister Ehud Barak cancelled a trip to the Paris Arms Show, having been warned that pro-Palestinian groups would seek his arrest.
Meanwhile, the boycott movement against Israel has gained astonishing momentum. Israeli officials are frequently targeted at universities in Europe and America, forcing them to cancel lectures. This week 76 distinguished Indian academics, including writer Arundhati Roy, signed a call for cultural and academic boycott of Israel. They have joined the well-established British academic boycott of Israel movement, BRICUP, and a growing US academic boycott group.
A cultural boycott of Israel movement is also developing; the Pixies, Klaxons and Gorillaz recently cancelled concerts in Israel. Prominent writers Alice Walker and Iain Banks are also boycotting Israel. Banks has refused to have his books translated into Hebrew, as has Jordan’s Queen Rania whose book for children has just been published.
Dockworkers in Sweden, Norway, India and South Africa are refusing to handle Israeli ships. In San Francisco, bay dockworkers delayed Israeli ships for 24 hours, unheard of in the US. Britain’s Unite union has resolved to boycott Israeli companies, and there is a mounting movement in Europe and the US for divestment from companies such as Caterpillar, which work to support Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Individually none of these acts is likely to threaten Israel. It is their collectivity and the speed with which they are spreading and increasing that is important. Beneath the official level of Western governmental support for Israel, there is private disquiet about Israeli conduct. And at the popular level, there is a sea change in opinion: where Israel was once seen as the victim, it has now become the bully. In the UK, for example, the strength of popular sympathy for Palestinians is striking. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the same is happening elsewhere.
If this trend continues and Israel’s isolation worsens it will be no bad thing. It may be the only way for Israelis to grasp that endless aggression comes at a price and that peace is not made through the barrel of a gun.