Even with over 3.1 million Twitter followers and a popular weekly television show, British-American late-night television comedian John Oliver does not run the world. Thank God.
Because if he did, or if he even ran a small country, Israel would be facing a humongous challenge on the international stage.
Oliver delivered a vicious 10-minute attack on Israel on his Last Week Tonight show on Sunday that was as brutally unfair as it was void of any context. To sum up his simplistic argument: Israel is hitting Hamas much harder than Hamas is hitting Israel, more Palestinians are dying than Jews, so Israel is wrong, immoral and guilty of war crimes.
That’s the equivalent of saying that because an estimated 500,000 German civilians were killed in World War II, as opposed to “only” 67,000 British civilians, the Nazis were right in that war, and Britain was wrong.
And Oliver is not alone. Other late-night comedians, such as Trevor Noah, have jumped into the fray with their pearls of geopolitical wisdom, as have various entertainers and celebrities.
What all that does, in a world where social media amplifies these voices well beyond what they deserve, is to create a sense among many Israelis that nobody understands us, that everyone is against us. And while the Olivers and Noahs are opinion influencers who have an oversized impact on a younger demographic that often gets its views of the world from those types of TV shows, the world’s governments – most importantly that of the US – are not internalizing their drivel. At least not yet.
As the second full week of Operation Guardian of the Walls is nearing completion, it would be a mistake to look at Oliver’s and Noah’s rants, or the tweets of radical progressive US congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, or listen to the anti-Israel and often antisemitic chants at protests around the globe, and see that as representative of where Israel stands today in the world.
Those rants are bad, those tweets are infuriating, those chants are pernicious, but when it comes to the world’s reaction to Israel’s campaign against Hamas – meaning the reaction of governments to Israel’s actions – Israel’s situation vis-a-vis the governments of the world is better this time than it was during any of the previous rounds of violence with Hamas in Gaza.
US President Joe Biden and many other leaders around the world have given Israel the “critical time we needed” to carry out this operation, former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror said.
Biden, who has come under pressure from within his own party, primarily from the progressive wing, to take a more active role and demand an immediate ceasefire, said on Wednesday during a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he supported a ceasefire. Twenty-four hours later, in another call with Netanyahu, he said he “expected to see a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”
This was after nine days of giving unstinting support to Israel for its right to defend itself, and blocking three different UN Security Council statements calling for an immediate halt to the fighting without mentioning Hamas or the rockets from Gaza.
Some have characterized Biden’s call that he expects a de-escalation as US pressure, others that it portends an imminent crisis in ties between the two leaders and the two countries. Amidror cautions against hyperbole.
“I don’t think there is pressure,” he said. “I think that what the Americans are saying is that they want to see a ceasefire. But that is not pressure. They understand the need for Israel to complete the operation, they understand we are talking about a terrorist organization that crossed all redlines, opened fire on Israeli cities. Therefore the administration gave us time.
“I MAKE no pretense of understanding how America works,” said Amidror, a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “I look at what they have done, and what they have done up until now is to give us the time we needed.”
Amidror said he was not surprised by this, since the leadership in the Democratic Party – “contrary to the perception here” – still maintains “checks and balances over the radical progressive element within the party that sometimes contains antisemitic elements.”
What is ironic about Biden’s support is that it has disappointed some on the Right, because it disrupts their narrative that Biden is a reincarnation of Barack Obama who will squeeze Israel at the first opportunity, and at the same time has also disappointed some on the Left who would like to see much less support for Israel.
There are also Israeli domestic agendas at work among those who want to characterize Biden’s comments as “pressure.” Those politically opposed to Netanyahu would like to cast him now in the role as someone on a collision course with Biden and his administration, while the prime minister’s supporters are keen on painting a picture of perfect harmony between the two men who have known each other for nearly 40 years.
But there are objective standards against which to judge pressure to withdraw. Here’s one: In April 2002, just nine days into Israel’s Operation Protective Shield aimed at crushing the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank that was responsible for hundreds of deaths during the Second Intifada, president George W. Bush called on prime minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw IDF troops immediately from the Palestinian cities they had moved into.
At a press conference in Crawford, Texas, Bush said, “My words to Israel are the same today as they were a couple of days ago: Withdraw without delay.” He added that he expected Israel to “heed my advice.” Sharon didn’t, the military campaign went on for another month, and US-Israel ties survived.
Biden’s expectation of de-escalation and support for a ceasefire does not come near that Bush standard of rhetorical pressure.
AVIV SHIRON, a recently retired diplomat who previously served stints as Israel’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, said that in comparison with other rounds of violence in Gaza in the past, “the international pressure this time is less significant and massive.
“We have seen the new US president give full support to Israel’s right to defend itself, and did not demand an immediate ceasefire. Now he is calling for a ceasefire, but we are 11 days into the operation – that is very significant.
“Also inside the European Union, which is always more critical, there were more countries this time that supported Israel’s right to defend itself, and did not demand a ceasefire.” He also pointed out that Israeli flags were flown atop government buildings in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia as a sign of solidarity.
Shiron attributed this primarily to the fewer civilian casualties in Gaza than in the past. “The collateral damage is less, and we are seeing fewer pictures of dead and injured and children, even though there are always civilian casualties.
“The number of casualties in Gaza is less because the IDF and the air force have learned lessons from the past, and as a result pressure coming from various governments is less,” he said.
Shiron maintained that anti-Israel protests on the streets of London, Paris, Berlin and Washington always accompany this type of conflict, and that there is little difference in them this time around. As they continue, there will be more pressure on various governments to speak out and take a stand, but “all in all things are better than in previous times.”
Hamas took advantage of existing tensions in Jerusalem as its pretense for launching attacks, and started the current campaign by firing at Jerusalem – an act that succeeded in both playing on and building up passions of Muslims around the world, including among Israeli-Arabs, something Hamas certainly deems a “success.”
At the same time, however, Shiron said that firing on Jerusalem hurt Hamas in capitals around the world. “When you fire on Jerusalem, as opposed to Sderot, it is perceived differently in the world.”
Amidror, who agreed with Shiron that Europe has largely given more support for Israel than in the past and allowed it to carry out its operations according to its own timeline, said there were three main reasons for this degree of understanding among many world governments.
First, he said, was Israeli restraint over incidents from Gaza in the weeks before Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem on May 10. Second, is that it is clear to the governments around the world who started the conflagration.
“And the third thing is that they are shooting at civilian targets, while everyone understands we are shooting at military ones,” Amidror said. “Sometimes we err and civilians are killed, but our intent – and the direction of our fire – is toward military targets, while they are shooting at civilians from among civilians.”
Amidror said that even those critical of recent Israeli actions in Jerusalem, such as efforts to evict four families from Sheikh Jarrah and police activities during Ramadan at the Damascus Gate, understand that there are huge gaps between the claims of Israeli errors in this matter and the response.
“There is disproportionality between the claims against us, and the reactions. For the sake of argument, let’s say that they were right, that our behavior could have been gentler in Jerusalem. Does that justify rockets on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv? There is tremendous disproportionality.”
But that disproportionality “plays into our hands,” Amidror said, as “reasonable people understand that a terrorist organization took advantage of the situation to fire on civilians.”
While Amidror maintained that the reaction of much of the world overall has not been overly bad, including Russia, China is an exception. There the overseas channel of state broadcaster CCTV aired a report shot-full with antisemitic tropes.
“....Some people believe that US pro-Israeli policy is traceable to the influence of wealthy Jews in the US and the Jewish lobby on US foreign policy-makers,” said host Zheng Junfeng, asking his audience whether US support for Israel was truly based on shared values. “Jews dominate finance and Internet sectors. So do they have the powerful lobbies some say? Possible.”
Amidror took umbrage. “There is a big difference between being for a ceasefire and antisemitic claims,” he said. “As someone who very much values the relationship with China, it pains me to see antisemitic claims in China compete with the antisemitic arguments of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. This is beneath China.”