Borderline Views: Repairing Israel’s global image

If Isaac Herzog becomes Israel’s next prime minister, he will have to immediately attend to dealing with Israel’s tarnished international image.

February 9, 2015 22:57
Isaac Herzog


If Isaac Herzog becomes Israel’s next prime minister, he will have to immediately attend to dealing with Israel’s tarnished international image. Normally, foreign affairs would be pushed aside for the first few weeks as a new government is formed and takes a shape, but given the abysmal international situation in which Israel finds itself at present, Herzog will have to act quickly to appoint a foreign minister and to use all of his charms and diplomacy to immediately rectify a situation the likes of which Israel has not experienced in the past.

The political trio of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett have, collectively, brought Israel to an all-time low in its relations with both Europe and, much more significantly, with the US, on which Israel depends for its security. The recent shenanigans of Israels ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, who simply carries out his master’s orders, has caused a major rift within the American political system which, so it would appear, will bring about the boycott of Netanyahu’s speech to the Congress by the entire Democratic Party, including Vice President Joe Biden.

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If Netanyahu thought that appearing in the Congress just a short time before polling day would boost his image inside Israel as someone who has international leverage, the plan has badly misfired. He has caused a major rift within the American political system and has shown the Israeli public, once and for all, that the great myth of Netanyahu as someone who understands the Americans and speaks their language is far removed from reality.

It may be true that Netanyahu’s early career as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations put him in the international limelight. His command of the English language, brought about by living for a lengthy period of time in North America, and his eloquence – some would say demagoguery – enabled him to enter Israeli politics on a high note, as the international defender of Israel and its honor. He soon became the country’s foreign minister where, again, he focused on the American stage as the only one which has ever been of any importance to him. When he became prime minister, it was clear, then as now, that he considered himself as Israel’s true foreign minister, regardless of which politician filled the post, seeing himself as the only person who knew how to deal with the outside world.

But his intransigence, his growing support of extremist right-wing policies and his scorning of anyone, be they American or European, who doesn’t buy his line, have led Israel to probably the worst international reputation it has ever had, where even its best friends are asking themselves why they should continue to lend support to a country and a government which practices the very opposite of diplomacy and which thinks that it can stand alone against the entire world based on its own internal belief that it can do no wrong.

His behavior in France was no better than the disaster he engineered in the US. The cameras showed the world his rude and brusque behavior in forcing himself into the front line of the demonstration which took place immediately after the terrorist murders last month. He insisted on traveling despite the requests of the French prime minister to stay at home . His speech to the Jewish community in France not only caused much consternation among the French public, but also succeeded in dividing the Jewish community itself, many of whose leaders believe that Netanyahu did them a great disservice and only worsened an already bad situation.

For Liberman, Israel’s foreign minister, the country’s international reputation matters little, as long as he is able to keep the Putin regime on his side. His disdain for all things European, his rejection of Western democracies and his rude and brash comments are the exact opposite of what is needed in a foreign minister, even when the country does have to make important statements to the international community concerning its security, global anti-Semitism and the war on terror.

If Herzog becomes prime minister he will have to act to immediately revert this flow of bad feeling towards Israel among its friends. As has already been written a great deal about him, if anyone has the necessary background, knowledge and skills necessary for dealing with the international stage, Herzog does – both in the US and in Europe. Given the fact that his late father, president Chaim Herzog, was a much more effective ambassador than Netanyahu while at the United Nations, that his uncle, Abba Eban, was perhaps Israel’s greatest diplomat and knew how to present Israel’s case in the world with strength, but equally with eloquence and great diplomacy, and that his other uncle, Dr. Ya’akov Herzog, was also a major diplomat, and would almost certainly gone on to much greater things in the international sphere had he not died at a relatively young age, the potential prime minister comes well equipped with the necessary skills for dealing with the situation which Netanyahu and his political colleagues have dragged us into.

Ironically it is Netanyahu and Bennett who have done their best to ensure that Israel’s position in the world is, as the title of Ya’akov Herzog’s book so aptly describes it, “A people that will forever dwell alone.”

But when this was used as a book title for a collection of Herzog’s speeches and lectures, it was not used in order to fulfill the biblical prophecy, but rather to show why and how, throughout history, Israel and the Jewish people have sought to maintain their distinctive customs and habits and to maintain a separation from the rest of the world.

Ya’akov Herzog was the last to deny the existence of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel attitudes on the part of foreign statesmen.

His famous debate with Arnold Toynbee back in the early 1960s stands, to this day, as one of Israel’s most significant defenses of its own positions and the right to Jewish statehood. But it stopped well short of further antagonizing the world in the way that the present government has done, as it strives to alienate almost anyone who does not lend their automatic support to their right-wing policies.

Netanyahu is directly responsible for Israel’s worsening international posture. The myth that he is Israel’s voice to the world has now been shown for what it really is – a myth, based on his ability to speak fluent English with an American accent. But the content and the tones which have become part of his rhetoric during the past five years have only served to alienate the world rather than to draw it closer and the damage which he has done to Israel in this respect is almost beyond repair.

Isaac Herzog is someone who knows and understands the world and the international community. Should he become prime minister he will have his work cut out to begin to repair the damage that Netanyahu has done to Israel’s image. If indeed there is someone who has the ability to deal with the problem, there are few in Israel today who can provide what Herzog has on offer.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.

The views expressed are his alone.

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