From BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 114, September 14, 2010, by Prof. Efraim Inbar, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies:
Israel is not nearly as diplomatically isolated as its critics from within and without would have us believe; thus, Israeli diplomacy and security policies should not be dictated by panic over such “isolation.”
By ascribing exaggerated importance to the Palestinian issue, and by inflating assessments of Israel’s isolation, the Israeli (and Diaspora Jewish) left advocate an urgent deal with the Palestinians, at a heavy Israeli price.
A calmer, more realistic assessment of Israel’s situation – attempted below – calms unwarranted fears and can help lead to sober positions on issues of war and peace.
Many Israelis feel that Israel is once more alone and that the Jewish state is increasingly isolated in the international community. An August 2010 poll shows that on the question of Israel's current status in the international arena, a majority of the Jewish public thinks Israel is moderately or completely isolated (54%), compared to 46% who say it is not isolated. A similar poll among Diaspora Jews would likely reveal an even more acute feeling of isolation, because as a minority Diaspora Jews are more exposed to anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli attitudes. Taking into consideration the many examples of the negative media coverage of Israel, such feelings in Israel and in the Diaspora are understandable. Indeed, the infamous Goldstone Report and the “Gaza flotilla” incident, among other events, provide ample evidence of a hostile international climate regarding Israel.
Moreover, the Israeli left argues vocally that the continuation of the conflict with the Palestinians exacts a heavy price from Israel; that Israel is becoming an isolated and less legitimate political entity. Yet, this claim reflects a distorted view of reality. The hard left is influenced primarily by its reference groups – the Western left and its radical offshoots. Ascribing exaggerated importance to the Palestinian issue, and to Israel’s isolation, they advocate an urgent deal with the Palestinians at a heavy Israeli price.
The partisans on the left are wrong. A closer look at Israel’s interactions with many states in the world in which real power resides, and with international organizations (not nearly as powerful), explains why. A calm and careful review of the situation provides a more nuanced and much less pessimistic picture.
Wider Israeli diplomatic presence
Take the number of states that have diplomatic relations with Israel. This measure clearly shows an improvement in Israel’s international status, particularly since 1973. Then, with the energy crisis, the power of the Arab world was at its zenith. Subsequently, Israel experienced an avalanche of severed diplomatic relations. This has drastically changed, particularly after 1991, when an increasing number of states decided to establish and/or upgrade diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. For example, all states within the Soviet orbit, in former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, as well as most African and Asian states opted for diplomatic relations. Significantly, rising powers such as China and India, and pivotal states such as Russia, Turkey, and Nigeria decided to have full diplomatic relations with Israel, which have been maintained ever since.
Generally, states facing the challenges of terrorism and/or radical Islam, mostly a post-1991 phenomenon, seek cooperation with Israel. The Jewish state has much to offer in the area of intelligence and tactical and doctrinal counter-terrorism. Because of the growing Islamist threat, the number of states seeking security relations with the Jewish state is on the rise. There are many countries that fall into this category, and the Israeli-Palestinian intractable conflict hardly deters them from useful interactions with Israel.
Improved relations with Muslim states
Significantly, relations with the Muslim world have improved. Israel has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Israel has oscillating informal dealings with several Arab states in the Gulf and in the Maghreb. Most of the Arab world adheres to the Arab League Peace Initiative. While this peace plan is not reasonable from an Israeli perspective (it is a take it or leave it proposal), the Arabs are talking peace, not war, and imply a de facto recognition of Israel – a historic change in their position. The Arab economic boycott has largely evaporated. It is the Iranian nuclear threat that puts any differences with Israel over the Palestinian issue on a side burner.
Israel also has cordial and fruitful relations with Muslim states that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. Israeli presence is well felt in states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Muslim identity of these populations and their elites does not hinder relations with Jerusalem in areas important to their national interests. Their sensitivity to the imagined or real misfortunes of the Palestinians is very low.
The US and rising powers
Similarly, diplomatic ties with the most important country in the world, the US, have greatly improved since 1973 and the strategic relationship is still very strong, despite the misguided Middle Eastern policies of the Barack Obama administration. For the past four decades, the level of American public support for Israel has remained remarkably stable (about 65%). This translates, of course, into congressional support. Israel is still popular in the US primarily because of how it is perceived and not because of the Jewish lobby. We have recently seen President Obama bow to this popular sentiment and adopt a friendlier posture toward the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu.
A high level of friendship toward Israel and the Jewish people characterizes the two most populous and dynamic states on the world scene – India and China – rising powers in every sense of the word. Both are old civilizations that have not been burdened by anti-Semitic baggage, like Europe. They treat the Jewish State with reverence as they see in it a similar old civilization that has had remarkable achievements. Most Asian countries, even if they vote against Israel in international forums, have a similar attitude. Likewise, countries on the Pacific Rim, an area that has gained international significance, are usually pro-Israel. South Korea and Australia are prime examples. Sub-Saharan African countries also contain very pro-Israel circles for a variety of reasons.
Old Europe" is indeed a different planet on this matter. Its naïve strategic culture, where there is no threat perception and the use of force is seen as anachronistic, makes Israel a difficult case to swallow. This is reinforced by latent traditional anti-Semitism that singles out the Jews as responsible for the problems of the world. Belgium, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden, in particular, display anti-Israeli positions bordering on anti-Semitism. Fortunately, none are core European states. Some European universities have become unpleasant places for Israelis, and a large portion of the European intelligentsia is intuitively anti-Israel, even denying Israel’s right to exist. It is also true that much of the elite European media is hysterically biased against Israel.
At the same time France, Germany, and Italy (the power centers of the European Union) are ruled nowadays by leaders that have a soft spot for Israel. Influential pockets of strong pro-Israeli sentiment are still present in all Western European states. Some even view Israel’s struggle as a vanguard of their own beleaguered Western civilization, threatened by moral relativism and Islamic fanaticism. The growing fears of Muslim immigration in the Old Continent provide an important corrective on the prism of Israel.
Then there’s the expansion of the European Union that has worked in Israel’s favor. "New Europe," the Eastern European states, is very different from the Western part of Europe. Its strategic culture is dominated by a historic threat perception from Russia; as a result, it is more understanding of the dilemmas associated with the necessary use of force by Israel. So is small Finland.
Little evidence of growing Israeli isolation
Generally, most states are not ready to have their relations with Jerusalem held hostage by the vicissitudes of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. We can also detect the beginning of weariness with the Arab-Israeli conflict and an attitude reminiscent of “a plague on both your houses.” Some have even begun to realize that the Palestinians have a stake in not ending the conflict and in propagating the victim image to continue to get financial support from gullible Western donors.
Most international forums remain rabidly anti-Israel and Israel continues to be singled out as the culprit of a variety of “sins.” But as no real change has taken place in the anti-Israel arena in past decades, it is difficult to conclude that Israel’s position has worsened in such international organizations. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that the UN rescinded the 1975 UN General Assembly Resolution terming Zionism – the Jewish national movement – racist. This year Israel was also accepted into the exclusive club of the OECD, which is a significant diplomatic feat. The OECD brings together the 33 most developed countries in the world that are committed to democracy and the market economy.
A growing and real problem for Israel is the phenomenon of “lawfare,” whereby anti-Israel groups exploit the legal system of Western states to criminalize Israel and Israeli government officials in these states and in international forums. Several states have been sensitized to this issue and have taken legislative actions to remedy the situation. This is particularly true of states operating military forces beyond their borders, such as the US, UK, or France, which could one day face similar challenges. Another growing challenge to Israel's legitimacy comes from NGOs that single out Israel for alleged human rights abuses. The real impact this has on Israel's international status is not yet clear.
Isolation in the international community, the literature shows, is more often than not connected to the international power configuration. Obviously, normative considerations have little impact on the decision making of the authoritarian states that deplore the human rights “abuses” of Israel. Indeed, the growing weakness of the US, particularly since the advent of President Obama, has exposed its small ally, Israel to somewhat harder times.
Nevertheless, taking into account that Israel cannot benefit from an association with a big international bloc, such as the developing countries or the Muslim bloc, or with regional blocs such as Latin America, Europe, or Asia, Israel is doing quite well on the international scene. Moreover, the world has shown that it can live with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years.
Jews are historically conditioned to sense isolation and de-legitimization. Already in the Bible, the prophet Balaam called the Jewish nation “a people that dwells alone.” Today, according to a recent poll, 56% of the Israeli Jewish public believes that "the whole world is against us." Yet, a larger majority (77%) thinks it makes no difference what Israel does and how far it may go on the Palestinian issue; the world will continue to be very critical of it. While the Jewish prism on international relations could amplify this sense of isolation, the realistic outlook on international relations can prevent unwarranted fears and lead to a balanced Israeli position on issues of war and peace.