Among the lessons we can tentatively parse from the current commotion in Muslim countries are possible clarifications about the murky overlap between international law and international politics.
Notice the extreme lack of certainty, suitable for any discussion of international law and politics. Much more than domestic law in well ordered countries, international law appears to be a close cousin of politics. Whose ox is being gored? is an appropriate banner to carve in the mahogany or marble over the door to the faculty of international law.
The issue is of prime importance to Israel. It is routinely condemned by international forums claiming the authority of international law, while the details of the accusations pale in comparison to those that could be leveled against many of the countries whose representatives join in the accusations against Israel. The lone veto by the United States against 14 votes to declare settlements illegal illustrates the issue. Lost in the discussion, including the condemnation by the United States representative who cast the veto, is the argument that the settlements are legal due to the lack of an entity with sovereignty in the West Bank from 1948 onward. Israel seems to have lost that argument not because of a ruling by a neutral court deciding the issue on the basis of reasoned discussion, but due to the political convenience of Muslim governments and Western democracies.
Now we are seeing the greater mobilization of international political forces against the regime in Libya, compared to the modest mobilization against the person of Hosni Mubarak, and what seem so far to have been even scantier pressures against Tunis and Bahrain. It is less clear what actions are being considered against Iran, Lebanon, and other places that are arguably no less troubling than Israel, Egypt, Tunis, or Bahrain.
Lesson one in international law and politics is that a regime being accused needs friends to balance its enemies.
Lesson two is that an accused''s actions against those attacking it should not appear to violate the fuzzy concept of decency more than the actions being taken against it.
Lesson three is that the antagonism of the international community depends on the weight of the accused.Muammar Gaddafi is losing on all of these lessons. His violence and antics over the course of a week and more than 40 years now earn him few supporters other than Hugo Chávez. With friends like that, Gaddafi does not need too many enemies. He is finding himself denied the right to defend himself in a civil war. Members of the international community who count have decided that he does not deserve to survive.
The turn against him came only when it became apparent that he was in serious trouble, with military officers having keys to the armories going over to the opposition, and senior officials of his government announcing their change of loyalty. The international commentators are smearing egg on the face of the British establishment due to the trumped up release of a man less than two years ago found guilty of involvement in the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie. Then Gaddafi seemed firmly in power, with control over energy and the granting of contracts to British or other firms. Now that he is hold up in a small part of his capital city, he is being accused of direct involvement in ordering the destruction of the airplane.
Israel is not short of enemies and antagonists. Among the latter are Jews and others who claim to be friends and supporters, but who join condemnations "for the good of Israel."
However, Israel also has friends in high places, and it has sought to stay within the rule of employing force in a measured way, and only in response to severe provocation. The attack on its soldiers on Israeli soil softened criticism of its action against Lebanon in 2006. Thousands of rockets fired against its civilians from Gaza were enough to justify its forceful attack in 2009 in the eyes of many, if not all those who claimed to be concerned for its future. Among the details moderating the criticism of Israel associated with the Mavi Marmara were pictures of the violence employed by those on the ship, along with the small number killed, prior efforts to stop the violation of the blockade peacefully, the supplies already being allowed into Gaza, and the increase in supplies permitted in response to international criticism.
Israel also does well on the third lesson. The skills and weapons of the IDF make its enemies cautious, and those claiming to be its friends hesitant to push it too far.
Peace and quiet are beyond Israel''s horizon. Muslims, the international and Jewish left will not go away or overlook assertions that the country is violating their conceptions of international law. However, much of the security barrier is in place, and inching its way through the challenges mounted in Israeli courts and their occasional decisions against the government. Construction continues in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs of Ma''ale Adumim, Ariel, and Givat Zeev, albeit with delays associated with officials'' judgments about international pressure. Palestinians'' violent reaction against the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza helps to moderate the pressure. Israel''s efforts then and on other occasions to meet international criticism have helped its friends with their arguments about the essential justice of Israel''s position.
We are not angels. Perhaps we are better than our enemies, or at least no worse. We continue to have more well placed supporters than Muammar Gaddafi and even Hosni Mubarak. Our security forces are impressive. The international community does not appear to demand more than that.