Winds of change sweep over the region, cornering Israel into isolation

Nada El-Kouny, Tuesday 4 Oct 2011

As analysts expect a political 'tsunami' to hit Israel, the country's political and social terrain has been shaken, raising questions over its future

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Israeli occupation soldiers next to separation wall, Ramallah, West Bank, 2007 (Photo: AP)

“We stand to face a diplomatic tsunami that the majority of the public is unaware of,” stated Israel’s Minister of Defence Ehud Barak on 13 March in Tel Aviv, commenting on the Palestinian Authority's (PA) recent bid for statehood at the United Nations.

A set of different factors have hit the Israeli government hard, leading to what can be viewed as Israel’s growing isolation in the international arena. Most recently, there is the PA's bid for statehood. There is also Turkey’s severing of its diplomatic relations and military cooperation with Israel, which followed Israel’s refusal to formally apologise for the death of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Freedom Flotilla that attempted to break the blockade on Gaza in 2010.

Moreover, there are the recent protest at the Israeli embassy in Cairo on 9 September, in which protesters destroyed a protective wall built by local authorities and proceeded to raid its offices. As a consequence, Israeli diplomatic staff returned to Israel, along with a number of Israeli workers from the Delta Galil company, an Israeli firm that operates in Egypt under the QIZ agreements promoting economic cooperation between the two countries.

Head of Israel’s opposition Kadima Party and former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, expressed her fear that “such international isolation could threaten the long term future of the Jewish state.”

International isolation is nothing new for Israel, which has been the subject of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) since 2005. Despite this, do the recent incidents suggest a deepening isolation for Israel that could undermine her?

Turbulence has hit Netanyahu’s government hard as Israeli critics and the media point to an increased threat to their country as it has forced itself into increasing seclusion. Israeli Public Radio’s morning host wrapped up the issue on 11 September by saying that "in Turkey the government is against us, in Egypt the mob is against us, and at the UN the majority is against us."

Gideon Levy and Yoel Marcus of the Israeli liberal paper Haaretz commented on the effect of the current crisis. In an article printed on 9 September and titled ‘Netanyahu must go, it’s as simple as that,’ Marcus criticised Netanyahu for "getting on the nerves of the entire world." Writing two days later, Levy echoed these sentiments by reasoning that it is Israeli "arrogance" which ultimately underlies the deteriorating relations with Turkey and Egypt.

An Egyptian official specialising in Israeli Affairs, who requested to remain anonymous, told Ahram Online during a phone interview that there were three main reasons for the current crisis facing Israel. “In addition to the increasingly rightist-conservative politics of the Netanyahu-led coalition, there is first and foremost the public pressure by Arab populations that has risen in the wake of the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, to push the government to reassess the Camp David accords and existing peace treaty." Secondly, there is the internal protest movement that has placed pressure on the government. The third reason is Palestine’s attempt to find new means to “embarrass” Israel on the world stage, hence its bid for statehood.

Israel, however, does not want to lose all its cards when it comes to neighbouring Egypt.

The official further explained that Israel wants to maintain its status quo with the least chance of a threat to its security. This would explain its relation to post-Mubarak Egypt where its strategic stability is at threat; it tries, as much as possible, to “keep itself out of Egypt’s internal affairs,” he added. This, however, was short-lived following the killing of six Egyptian soldiers by Israeli forces on 18 August.

Despite expressions of fear and uncertainty by some Israeli media analysts, Moshe Arens, a former minister of defence and minister of foreign affairs, supported Netanyahu’s unwavering position at the UN General Assembly on 23 September. In the article, titled ‘There was no political tsunami for Israel after all,’ Arens states that Israel stands at the of September not as “devastated” as was expected. Netanyahu proved sceptics wrong by not worrying about the warnings and not proceeding with “daring initiatives”, Arens adds.

Amid all this, Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians continues unabated; only days after the UN General Assembly meeting it announced the construction of 1,200 new homes in the Gilo settlement near Jerusalem. 

In a phone interview with Ahram Online, Issam Makhoul, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship and a former member of the Knesset and leader of the Maki communist party, stated that the isolation Israel is facing, while currently more pronounced, will not bring about fundamental changes. “If root changes are to take place, we have to address the United States… pressure has to be placed on the United States by the Arab nations and its citizens, as a result of its veto threat at the UN.”

On top of these regional pressures, the government is facing unprecedented social unrest in the form of the July 14movement, which has come out in force with an estimated half a million Israelis taking to the streets by 3 September, calling for social justice.  

Though the Israeli protest movement has made no official link to the occupation of Palestine, it has itself perhaps highlighted the failure of the Zionist social compact on which Israel was founded. Indeed, the ideal of the social welfare state, which protesters are demanding that the government restores, may be the only hope in affecting Netanyahu’s coalition.

Makhoul stated that while the current state of isolation will not necessarily bring about a significant change in Israel’s policies, any significant outcome would be brought about by its internal protest movement. For this to occur, one of the main pressure points is for protestors to push for a reallocation of the public funds and forcing the government to decrease its defence budget.

The protest movement is inherently connected to the occupation and the settlement project because of the state’s subsidisation of settlement housing.   

The Trajtenberg committee formed by Netanyahu to implement reforms has left the protest leaders dissatisfied. “As expected,” added Makhoul, the committee did not solve one of the central facets of their anger: the housing crisis. This leaves the protesters with no other choice but to continue to protest and pressure the government, which they have vowed to do.  

Livni’s expressed fear over the increasing isolation that is threatening Israel’s “long-term existence” begs the question over Israel’s long term security.

Indeed, can Israel, which spends on defence more than anything else internally, continue to solely rely on its powerful military to survive in the region, amidst increasing isolation in the international arena?     

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