Did Israel sledgehammer its reputation as a functioning democracy?

And, are Israel’s ongoing conflicts with international bodies endemic to being viewed as the ‘occupier’?

OMAR SHAKIR, Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director, looks up before a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem in September (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
OMAR SHAKIR, Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director, looks up before a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem in September
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
The history of conflict between Israel and international human rights bodies and quasi-legal groups is so long and poisonous that it may be impossible to dissect the first cause: did Israel break the relationship, or did its critics? What is the chicken and what is the egg?
For example, on Tuesday the High Court of Justice ordered Human Rights Watch Israel-Palestine director Omar Shakir deported within 20 days, supporting the government’s decision on the issue.
Shakir, who is a US citizen and needs a visa to be in Israel, immediately tweeted that if the High Court decision is upheld, Israel will “join ranks of Iran, N. Korea & Egypt in blocking access for @hrw official. We wont stop. And we wont be the last.”
Did Israel and the High Court just, on their own initiative, take a sledgehammer to the relationship and to Israel’s reputation as a functioning democracy?
Or was Israel only belatedly responding to HRW and other international groups’ long-standing attempts to boycott Israel or Israel’s presence in the West Bank – a potential major threat to the country’s economic stability?
This in some ways drags the conversation down into additional layers of complexity more than it clarifies how all of this came about or how it might be repaired (if at all.)
The phrase “West Bank” may say it all.
Israel’s relationships with international human rights organizations, ranging from groups like HRW and Amnesty International to UN organizations like the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, have always been marked by hostility. This has been connected to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the West Bank. (UNRWA goes back even further to the dispute over Palestinian refugees from the 1948 War.)
Put simply, the UN has been mostly dominated by developing countries that have felt a kinship with the Palestinians in opposing their own “colonialist oppressors.”
Certainly since shortly after the 1967 Six Day War, much of the UN and these developing countries have viewed the Israeli “occupation” of the Palestinians through the lens of how some European countries once oppressed them.
Israelis have responded with having little to no sympathy for the UN’s and international human rights organizations’ criticism of them.
In a September Pew poll of 32 countries, Israelis had the worst view of the UN of any country by a long shot.
Whereas the average negative view of the UN in the 32 countries was at 26%, a staggering 65% of Israelis had a negative view of the UN. The country with the next most negative view, Russia, did not even come close, with a 43% negative view.
One can see this in Israeli politics, where centrist Blue and White’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, fully supported the expulsion of Shakir, even as one might expect distaste for HRW to be limited to the Israeli Right.
Here and there, exceptions have come out where the UN or international groups have given Israel more of a fair shake.
An Israeli, former Hebrew University law school dean Yuval Shany, is chairman of the UN Human Rights Committee – a professional group of experts that is not politicized like the UNHRC.
There have been a number of UN secretary-generals who tried to be evenhanded with Israel. Their reports about alleged war crimes often treated Israel somewhat more gently than some of the venomous reports coming from the UNHRC.
Then there is the International Criminal Court – still an enigma. No one knows yet how the ICC will treat Israel.
Last week’s IDF court decision to convict one of its soldiers for shooting a Palestinian in 2018 showed impartiality, but then the handing down of a light sentence of one-month community service could cloud the picture.
How will the ICC deal with such cases?
Some of the signs conveyed by the ICC have shown that it is less political and more legally rigorous in its approach than the UNHRC.
For example, the ICC prosecutor has repeatedly tried to walk away from pressure to criminally probe Israelis relating to the deaths of 10 Turkish passengers on the 2010 Mavi Marmara in the Gaza flotilla raid.
Also, the ICC Prosecution has ignored Palestinian pressure to race forward with war crimes charges against Israel relating to the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. Five years after the war, the ICC Prosecution may be near a decision, but the Palestinians had demanded a decision in 2015.
But even the ICC has implicitly slammed a number of Israeli actions for violating international law, and many think it will find something to go after Israel for.
Still, more typical than these in-between examples in the international arena are unabashed attacks on Israel for its West Bank presence.
In late October, top UN human rights official Michael Lynk did not pretend to be nonpartisan, calling for an international ban on all products made in the Israeli settlements, as a step to end Israel’s 52-year-old “illegal occupation.”
Whether one is in favor of or against the deportation of Shakir, there is no question that he called for boycotting Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
He pressured FIFA, Airbnb, Bookings.com and a large Spanish company to cut any business ties relating to Israel’s West Bank presence.
The UNHRC for some years has been informally pushing a blacklist of multinational companies it wants to penalize for doing business in the West Bank.
Israelis view UNRWA as basically a disguised Palestinian advocacy group (the organization admitted that Hamas used at least three of its facilities to conceal rockets against its will during the 2014 Gaza war) and helped convince the US to cut all funding of the group.
WOULD ANYTHING be different under a Blue and White government?
Lapid’s position might suggest that the hostility would be the same. On the other hand, a Blue and White government might never have passed the law for expelling boycott activists.
There certainly have been times when Israeli officials tried to reach out more to international human rights organizations, and when some US and European allies leaned on these groups to temper their criticism – say, if an active peace process was ongoing.
In that sense, it is possible that groups like HRW and the UN in general have better relations with left-wing or centrist Israeli government’s than with right-leaning ones.
It could be argued that these international groups see no reason to restrain their criticism or boycotts of Israel if the Israeli government is not moving speedily toward a resolution of the Palestinian conflict and its West Bank presence.
But this would be overly simplistic. Activists in various countries have tried to arrest and bring war crimes charges against top leaders from the Left and Center like Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni and Benny Gantz. For such activists, they may not see a great difference between Israel’s Right and Left, and whether they are addressed with respect or deported.
These are more likely activists who do not simply want to undermine Israel’s presence in the West Bank, but who wish to use legal means to end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state – at best giving Jews a place in a binational state run or half-run by Palestinians.
If some of the international organizations and activists will always be seeking to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, then the true debate may be an internal Israeli one.
The question then becomes: Should Israel distinguish between adversaries who are committed to the two-state solution and who only challenge the settlements, versus those who want a binational state? Or should Jerusalem take a hard line against any groups who use boycotts or lawfare-style charges against it?
The answer to that question probably depends on whether one’s political view is to mitigate the harm to Israel’s legitimacy emanating from these global groups with some level of cooperation, or to fight them all out as adversaries who cannot be negotiated with.
Usually, Israel’s legal community opts for some kind of cooperation, if the political echelon allows it.
An example is the ICC Prosecution, where Israeli government lawyers convinced the political echelon in 2015 to make a strategic decision to carry on an informal dialogue with the ICC, even as Jerusalem formally rejects ICC jurisdiction over any alleged war crimes.
This was different from Israel’s boycott of the UNHRC’s Goldstone, McGowan-Davis and other probes.
WHAT WAS so unusual about the High Court ruling was that the legal community’s leading body ignored any distinction between those boycotting the settlements and those boycotting all Israelis.
The court might argue that by leaving the door open to HRW to send a replacement for Shakir, it left the door open to cooperation, but there is no question that the decision was a blow to any cooperative approach and will be seen as such by the ICC and other international bodies when they size up Israel.
It is unclear whether this is a sea change within Israel’s legal community, or is just the legal community bowing to the political echelon and a series of laws it has passed since 2011 (the latest law was passed in 2017) against boycott efforts by international groups.
Either way, after the High Court decision, there will likely be less space for dialogue between the sides than whatever limited space existed in the past.
Absent a radical change moving Israelis and Palestinians back on a path of dialogue and with a horizon toward a possible resolution, the deterioration is likely to continue.