Twenty-seven years ago, The Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Kirschen accurately depicted Israel and the Jewish people’s perpetual sense of isolation in a Dry Bones cartoon that featured two men discussing the situation in the world.
“Good news, bad news about the community of nations?” one man asked the other.
“Yup,” the other man replied. “The good news is that the world is UNITED AT LAST!” “And the bad news?” “They’ve united against Israel.”
Despite a sea of indicators painting a completely different picture today, the sentiment captured in that cartoon from November 1990 rings as true now as it did back then. Indeed, this sense of isolation seems to have seeped into the country’s DNA, a sense that Israel is implacably alone, and that the world is heavily arrayed against it.
For example, a poll sponsored in September by the left-leaning Mitvim think tank showed that well over half of all Israelis (59%) think that international criticism toward the country stems from a basic hostility toward Israel, while only 34% believe this stems from disagreement over Jerusalem’s policies.
That same poll found that 47% of the public feel that Israel’s standing in the world is either “poor” or “rather poor.”
All this despite frequent proclamations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel is fast becoming nothing less than a world power; despite impressive trade figures with even the most critical European countries; despite a parade of visitors to the country that would make similar-sized countries such as Serbia, Austria and Papua New Guinea blush; and despite the fact that Netanyahu is getting more invitations for visits abroad than he can deal with.
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Israel today enjoys as strong a relationship as ever with the United States: with the administration, the Congress, the defense establishment and – if the polls are to be believed – with the public, despite problems with certain segments, such as some elite campuses and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But as the election of US President Donald Trump illustrated, there is much more to America than The New York Times
editorial board and the University of California at Berkeley.
Israel now has a confluence of interests it has never enjoyed before with numerous Arab states, including the two countries with which it has peace treaties – Egypt and Jordan – and with some countries with which it does not have formal diplomatic ties, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The common threats of Iran and radical Islamic terrorism – of both the Sunni and Shi’a variety – have led to the much-discussed hush-hush cooperation between Israel and those countries.
Israel has an open and constructive line of communication with Russia, and both countries understand the other’s interests, though they may not always concur on policy. Ties with India are nothing less than in a golden age, and trade with China just keeps growing.
Netanyahu has broken important ground in Israel’s relations with Africa and Latin America, with numerous countries in both continents eager to cooperate and do business. Just this week he went to Africa for the third time in 18 months and – on the sidelines of the re-inauguration of Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi – met with the leaders of 10 African states.
Ties with Asia and Latin America are opening up critical markets, while good relations with Africa are slowly eroding the automatic anti-Israel majority in international forums.
Even the countries of the European Union, many of them critical of Israel so often in the past, realize the utility of strong ties with Israel in order to benefit from the Jewish state’s intelligence services and antiterrorism expertise. On December 11 Netanyahu will be the first Israeli prime minister in memory to address all the EU’s foreign ministers at one of their regular meetings in Brussels.
As Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu said in an interview during a visit in October, “I believe honestly that Israel’s [diplomatic] situation now is maybe one of the best in the history of the Jewish state.” It is one thing for Netanyahu to say this, and quite another to hear it from the foreign minister of an EU state.
Yet so many Israelis still feel badly isolated.
Why? There are numerous reasons, some the result of Jewish history, others a product of modern Israeli history. As Jews, the journey of the last two millennia has been torturous.
Centuries of persecution and exile that culminated in the Holocaust have had an accumulative effect on the nation’s communal memory and national psyche, making it feel isolated and alone.
Israel’s short history has also been one of having to go it alone, cut off from friends at key moments – be it in 1948, 1967 or 1973. Years of lopsided, biased, anti-Israel resolutions in international forums, as well as condemnation after condemnation after condemnation from abroad, have reinforced this world-isagainst- us sentiment. As has the exaggerated attention paid to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Take as an example the rabidly anti-Israel (antisemitic?) rocker Roger Waters, whose every letter calling on colleagues to boycott Israel becomes news. Forget the fact that the vast majority of artists the world over dismiss Waters’s letters as senseless prattle. If even one artist, regardless of his or her relative worth, considers canceling a performance in Tel Aviv, that hits the front pages and adds to the feeling that the country is on the fast track to the pariah status of an apartheid South Africa.
BDS is a problem, undoubtedly; but that is because it legitimizes a conversation about Israel’s illegitimacy, rather than as a result of any real threat it poses to Israel’s economy. It must be fought, but proportion is needed. In the past decade the movement has turned into a cash cow, a way for Jewish organizations and Israeli ministries to get funding. Even Yediot Aharonot, hurt in the pocketbook by its anti-Netanyahu slant during the previous election campaign, tried to burnish its “patriotic” credentials in 2015 by running an anti- BDS campaign.
The problem is that all the attention paid to BDS amplifies it well beyond its real dimensions. Is it a problem? Yes. Is it an existential issue worth all the attention that it is being paid? Not quite.
Finally, the sense of isolation is reinforced because politicians of all stripes, both here and abroad, constantly say we are isolated or soon will be.
Former US president Barack Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry, cloaked in the mantle of knowing better than the Israeli electorate what is best for the Jewish state, warned continuously for years that Israel needed to reverse its policies toward the Palestinians or face international opprobrium and isolation.
Echoes of the same sentiment have been repeated over and over in Israel by people such as Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Ehud Barak. Barak famously warned in 2011 of a diplomatic tsunami that was about to hit Israel if it did not advance peace moves with the Palestinians (the tsunami never came).
And on the political Right, voices are often raised that the whole world is against us, and as a result Israel should follow whatever policies it desires regarding the Palestinians and the territories, because it is going to be damned no matter what it does.
Given Jewish history, the exaggerated attention paid to BDS efforts, and the fact that politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have a political interest in portraying Israel as woefully alone, is it really any wonder that so many believe the country lives in not so splendid international isolation? As for all the ample evidence to the contrary? Well, why let facts confuse the matter?
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