How fleeting is the world’s fancy. Less than two years ago, Israel seemed to be riding a wave of international popularity.
After years of international criticism, Israel had managed to regain the moral high ground in its struggle with the Arab world by withdrawing from southern Lebanon and making a sweeping peace offer that had “unmasked” Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as an insincere peace partner.
Now, Israel’s military success in its recent Operation Protective Wall has left it more internationally isolated than at any time since the 1982 Lebanon War.
Israel’s quarrel with the United Nations over a fact-finding team to seeking to investigate the battle in the Jenin refugee camp — a team whose arrival was in doubt this week — is a measure of mutual mistrust. And the fact that the team was set up in the first place shows just how isolated Israel has become.
The speed with which Israel’s diplomatic position has collapsed offers a sobering lesson about the international reality — and raises serious questions for Israeli leaders who formulate policy with an eye to the international repercussions.
Just 21 months ago, it seemed that then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak had removed the twin causes of years of international reproach — Israel’s occupation of a security zone in southern Lebanon and its denial of Palestinian self- determination in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
How, in less than two years, has Israel once again become an international pariah?
In May 2000, Barak pulled Israeli forces in Lebanon back to the U.N.-certified border. In July, at the Camp David summit, he offered the Palestinians a state in Gaza and virtually all of the West Bank, with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.
The Palestinians said no, and launched a terrorist campaign against Israel with no clear political agenda.
Yet it is Israel that finds itself denounced and isolated in much of the world, with the Europeans considering economic sanctions, the United Nations voting to send a mission to probe Israel’s moral conduct and the international community contemplating the dispatch of armed forces to impose a peace.
In effect, Israel’s effort to court world opinion has backfired dramatically.
After years of U.N. hostility toward Israel — including a 1975 resolution denigrating Zionism as racism — Barak carefully won U.N. confirmation that Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon was complete to the last inch.
That, Barak believed, would form the basis of Israel’s new deterrent policy against Syria, Lebanon and Hezbollah: If they violated the internationally recognized border, Israel would have the world’s backing for tough retaliatory measures.
Israel’s hopes for fair treatment have been dashed, however: The international community has been largely silent as Hezbollah has continued to stage cross- border attacks and has kidnapped and killed Israeli soldiers — yet Israeli retaliation has been condemned for escalating the situation.
Barak also believed he had gained the moral high ground in the conflict with the Palestinians by making an unprecedentedly generous peace offer, which was rejected and repaid with violence.
Barak was sure the world would see who wanted peace and who didn’t, but it didn’t work that way: Ironically, by resorting to terror, Arafat was able to recapture the moral high ground. Palestinian violence seemed to imply a legitimate and desperate struggle for national liberation, no matter what Israel had offered and Arafat rejected.
When the Israeli army took counter-measures, the perception around the world was of the Israeli Goliath persecuting the Palestinian David.
Yet the sea change in international opinion came with the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister in February 2001. Almost immediately there were moves to initiate a lawsuit against Sharon for his alleged role in the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Maronite Christian forces, when Sharon was Israel’s defense minister.
The subliminal message from Sharon’s adversaries was that Israel was now a “war criminal.”
Israel’s position was further undermined when Sharon made it clear that he would not go as far as Barak to placate the Palestinians. Israel could now be portrayed as power-driven, unwilling to compromise and willing to use force to maintain its occupation and settlements.
There also was an inherent contradiction in Sharon’s strategy against the intifada: His initial tactic was to exert as much diplomatic and military pressure as he could on Arafat to get him to stop the violence.
But the more military pressure Israel exerted, the more international criticism it drew. Diplomatic pressure on Arafat dissipated, as many argued that he couldn’t be expected to meet his anti-terror commitments when his regime itself seemed to be under Israeli attack.
Israel received some international sympathy when it restrained itself in the face of terrorist attacks, but at the untenable cost of ever-increasing civilian casualties.
Amos Oz, one of Israel’s leading novelists, distinguishes between the “two wars” that Israel and the Palestinians are fighting.
One is to end Israeli occupation, and in this war, Oz says, right is on the Palestinian side. The other war is over Israel’s very existence, and in that war right is on Israel’s side. The Palestinians and Israelis, he believes are fighting both of these wars simultaneously.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, America tends see to the conflict in terms of Israel struggling for survival against nihilistic terror. Europe, under the weight of a heady combination of Holocaust guilt, colonial history and acute sensitivity to individual rights, tends to see Israel using force to maintain occupation.
The Palestinians have been able to exploit their portrayal of Israel as a cruel occupying power to the hilt — and Israeli officials charge that the United Nations has been a willing accomplice.
Literature and rhetoric at the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism in South Africa last summer was reminiscent of the 1975 resolution denigrating Zionism as racism — and even of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic propaganda.
Insidiously, says Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, it is not only Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that is being delegitimized, but the Jewish state’s very right to exist. That feeling now underlies some of the virulently anti-Israel — and occasionally anti-Semitic – – coverage in the European media.
Israeli officials who had hoped that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan would augur a more even-handed approach have been disappointed.
Israeli officials are convinced that the Jenin fact-finding team, if it does come, will not give them a fair hearing. They point to three other U.N. missions in the last two years that issued scathing criticism of Israel, while making virtually no mention of the Palestinian role in the crisis.
Can Israel do anything to turn the tide?
Barak thinks it can. He argues that Sharon now must put forward a convincing peace plan, or “face the risk of losing legitimacy.” Barak advocates dismantling remote settlements and withdrawing unilaterally from more than 80 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to regain the moral high ground.
But that raises a key question: Would a major unilateral move change Israel’s international standing in the face of the Palestinians’ moral onslaught? Indeed, would a withdrawal even to the pre-1967 lines be enough?
Or would Israel just be risking its security to win international sympathy that would prove, in the future, equally evanescent?
This is one of the crucial dilemmas facing Israeli politicians on the left and right today.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.