I strongly support the right of Israel to exist and prosper. I accept that a country surrounded by hostile neighbours will need to respond forcefully when attacked. This is especially true ever since Hamas, with its dubious military wing the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, came to power in the Gaza Strip. As the old adage goes; attack is often the best form of defence.
Yet Israel must strike a balance between military credibility and international credibility. If the government responds weakly to a military or terrorist assault, this will embolden groups which seek Israel’s destruction (including the regime in Iran). But if Israel overreacts, and particularly if this results in mass civilian casualties, then international public opinion will turn against it, and allied governments will find it difficult to remain supportive. In November’s Gaza Strip crisis, at least 105 Palestinians were killed, including a high number of children. This terrible loss of life did Israel’s international credibility great harm.
The plan to build settlements in the ‘E1’ area would effectively cut the West Bank in two and threaten the viability of a future Palestinian state. E1 is a narrow 12,000-acre corridor east of Jerusalem that connects the northern and southern portions of the West Bank. Recent progress of the E1 plan is apparent retaliation for the UN vote which upgraded Palestinians’ status to an observer state. From a PR point of view, this has done Israel no favours and has merely undermined trust in its willingness to negotiate. The fate of Jewish settlements remains at the heart of the current impasse in peace talks.
In Europe, Israel has historically enjoyed a high level of support. But according to an ICM poll, Europeans’ perception of Israel has changed. A survey of 7,000 people in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain revealed that only 10% believe their countries should support Israel. This shift is primarily due to Israel’s violation of international law, specifically its actions in Gaza, the 2010 attack on the humanitarian flotilla, its settlement expansion programme, and the construction of the separation wall. When it comes to the battle for hearts and minds, Tel Aviv is languishing.
Guilt over the Holocaust made Germany one of Israel’s staunchest allies. But the German public no longer wishes to support Israel unconditionally and have grown impatient with Israeli settlement policy and the perceived mistreatment of Palestinians. Obviously, a democratically elected government ignores public opinion at its peril. British public opinion is turning against Israel for the same reasons. There is also a shift in attitude against Israel among centrist MPs amid growing frustration with the lack of progress in the peace process.
Even Israeli–US relations may become strained in decades to come. When President Obama first took office, he made achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians a major goal. Obama pressured Netanyahu into accepting a Palestinian state and entering negotiations, to which Netanyahu eventually conceded. According to the Israel Project, America’s Latino population is the most hostile towards Israel. This is significant because Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group, accounting for the majority of births in California.
The upshot of all this is that Israel can no longer rely on the unconditional support of its major allies, even the US. The recent UN vote showed how world opinion is increasingly with the Palestinians. One hundred and thirty-eight members of the UN assembly supported the upgraded status. Only nine states (predictably including Israel and the US) voted against. It was noteworthy that Britain, and particularly Germany, chose to abstain rather than support Israel’s position. Furthermore, last week the UK, France, Spain, Denmark and Sweden summoned Israeli ambassadors to account for the E1 settlement plans – their united and frank condemnations were something never before seen.
There has even been talk of possible economic sanctions against Israel, with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt saying: ‘We and other EU countries will discuss other potential steps.’ However, economic sanctions are very unlikely. Indeed, William Hague firmly stated that it was ‘not an option.’ Although there may well be appetite for sanctions amongst EU citizens, any European government proposing this would incur American wrath. The US remains staunchly supportive of Israel. Since 1985, it has provided nearly $3 billion in grants annually to the Jewish state. Currently, almost all of this aid takes the form of military assistance.
But one wonders how long it will be before sanctions do become a viable option, especially with neoconservative influence on the wane in Washington.
World opinion is turning against Israel. Israel must tread more carefully in future, and can no longer rely on unconditional support from hitherto staunch allies. The majority of respectable, pro-Israel opinion now stresses the need for Israel to show more commitment to the two-state solution. This should prove beneficial for the realisation of lasting peace. It is in Israel’s interest to see the two-state solution implemented sooner rather than later, whilst it still enjoys US backing. In the meantime, the Jewish state must consider how it can improve its image abroad, whilst at the same time maintaining security – a difficult balancing act.