Borderline Views: Diplomatic self-destruction

The government of Israel has responded in its normal hysterical manner to EU labeling initiative rather than thinking its way through the situation.

MK Michael Oren with Made in Europe sticker (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
MK Michael Oren with Made in Europe sticker
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The decision by the EU to mark all Israeli products which are manufactured over the Green Line, in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, has been in the cards for a long period of time.
Despite the fact that this decision, which makes a clear distinction between the “Occupied Territories” and the sovereign territory of the State of Israel, recognized and supported by every member of the EU, the government, and in particular the Foreign Ministry, has responded in its normal hysterical manner, rather than thinking its way through this important distinction.
This is not surprising given the fact that the present deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, (the full position is held by the prime minister) is one of the most extreme right-wing members of the present Knesset and has shown, in just a few months in office, that she does not have any understanding of what diplomacy is and whose utterances and actions so far have only served to even further worsen Israel’s standing and image in the eyes of the international community.
Her most recent decision to transform the Foreign Ministry Cadets Course, one of the most professional and prestigious professional training courses in Israel which has produced some excellent, balanced diplomats over the years, into a course of right-wing political indoctrination, does not hold well for Israel’s future diplomatic corps. Insisting that the highly qualified cadets should be taken on tours of West Bank settlements including the highly contentious City of David project in Silwan, be forced into justifying a political position which is clearly not accepted by half of Israel’s population and is globally rejected – even amongst Israel’s best friends including the USA and Germany – will only serve to weaken, rather than strengthen, Israel’s position in the world if that is the message they are now instructed to present.
Replacing one of Israel’s most highly professional and competent ambassadors, Ron Prosor, at the United Nations with an extreme right-wing supporter of settlements, Danny Danon, who, in the very short time he has been in New York has managed to alienate those few supporters and friends Israel still has, through bombastic and extremist statements, is just another example of this diplomatic self-destruction which the ministry seems to have adopted in recent months.
By far the worst of this policy is the cheap use of the Holocaust as a gut response to any form of criticism which emerges from Europe. As much as we may not like the EU decision to label Israeli produce from the West Bank, the comparison of such a policy to the Nazi yellow Stars of David which Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust years, and the continued attempt to remind the Europeans that they have no right to be critical of Israel because of their complicity and guilt in the Holocaust 70 years ago, is about as cheap as it comes, and is a grave insult to survivors, and children of survivors, both in Israel and around the world.
There are many excellent and good reasons to support Israel. There is every reason to oppose those who would delegitimize the existence of the state or attempt to practice boycott on the country and its financial and educational institutions. There is no question that many global institutions display a great deal of hypocrisy in singling out Israel amongst all those countries which infringe human rights or do not allow full independence and autonomy for ethnic minorities. American lawyer Alan Dershowitz demonstrated this clearly this past week in a debate at the prestigious Oxford Union where, despite all predictions to the contrary, his reasoned argument against BDS defeated the Union motion in favor of such actions.
But we cannot escape the fact that once the geopolitical distinction between sovereign Israel and the Occupied Territories is made, this highlights the core issue which is at stake. Right-wing governments will always prefer to oppose blanket calls for boycott and BDS rather than have to focus on the heart of the problem – the Occupation and the political rights of the Palestinians.
For this reason, they continually try to refocus the debate away from the real problem and replace it with an attack on global anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel.
In one sense the EU has done us a favor by making clear the geopolitical distinction between Israel and the West Bank. By opposing continued occupation they have made a very clear statement to the effect that they recognize and support the sovereign State of Israel within its international boundaries. Just as they are prepared to label (not boycott – they are effectively giving the consumer the choice to decide whether he/she is prepared to purchase these goods) such produce, it is a clear rejection of an attempt to impose any form of boycott or other such labeling on goods produced in Israel.
While Israel, like every other country in the world, is proud of the labeling of its goods as manufactured in within its boundaries and many people throughout the world will specifically seek out Israeli-produced goods, it is ironic that in countries where they fear that consumers may not want to purchase such goods, it is the Israeli producer and the Israeli government which agree not to label them at all.
It is a paradox. If the present government believes that it is justified in retaining control and expanding settlement in the West Bank, why should it be so opposed to the labeling of goods from this region? Why indeed is it so ashamed or embarrassed to highlight the region to which it feels entitled? In the bigger picture, the EU continues to support and promote joint scientific and cultural exchange, strong economic and commercial links, to the extent that Europe has become a much more important trading and scientific partner than even the USA in recent years.
Both because of its geographical proximity (for goods) and its inclusion of Israel as an associate member in all of its research and cultural programs, there has probably never been a period in which Europe and Israel were as strongly linked and integrated with each other as they are today.
Our politicians live in some sort of vacuum where they believe they can demand a continuation of the good things, while at the same time reject any form of criticism of those issues with which the world does not agree.
The recent war of adverts in The Guardian newspaper between pro- and anti-boycott academics and other public figures makes for good headlines and for knee-jerk reaction on the part of Israeli politicians and diplomats in the war of words, but has had relatively little impact on the scientific cooperation between the two countries – as is the case with almost all other European countries.
This remain largely a war of headlines between individuals rather than institutions or governments, the latter of which have done much to strengthen their bilateral links in recent years as a means of clearly demonstrating that they are opposed to all forms of BDs and boycott even though they strongly disagree with the political policies of the government vis-a-vis the Occupied Territories and the Palestinians.
The geographical distinction is not something new which has suddenly been adopted by the EU. These same institutions and governments that strongly support Israel have long differentiated between Israel which has a right to exist and be strong, and the West Bank.
Nothing did Israel’s scientific image greater damage in its response to pro-boycotters, than the decision by the previous government to recognize Ariel College as a fully fledged university, precisely because of its location within the Occupied Territories.
Unlike the blanket boycott of South Africa, for every pro-boycotter, there are dozens and hundreds of other public figures, scientists and artists who reject this position and are openly and publicly prepared to do business with Israel. Ironically, this has resulted in new scientific programs, and the visit of many artists and other public figures who may not have had Israel on their agenda until that point. But most of these friends and supporters who are prepared to stand up to the pro-boycotters also refuse to undertake scientific cooperation or perform beyond the Green Line, but I don’t see the government coming out against them for this position.
We are only too happy for the support that they give us.
The highly publicized advert which appeared in last week’s Guardian was no more than an act of desperation in the face of increasing public statements in support of Israel. The pro-boycotters see that, beyond the headlines and the media discussions, they are having almost no practical impact and, as a result, they are trying to keep the issue alive in the eye of the public and their ill-informed colleagues.
The pro-boycotters are succeeding in alienating and weakening the position of the moderates in Israel who are critical of government policies, oppose all forms of BDS and boycott, but believe that the only way forward is through dialogue and cooperation, not exclusion.
Outsiders should be facilitating, not destroying, such collaboration if they have a genuine interest in advancing the cause of peace and bringing Occupation to an end. This, in turn, plays directly into the hands of the present government and deputy foreign minister who will go out of their way to discredit the moderates, impose nondemocratic sanctions on pro-peace and pro-human rights NGOs in an attempt to silence them, in an artificial attempt to blur the obvious distinction between what happens inside Israel and what takes place in the West Bank.
How can we continue to be so blind as to try to convince the entire world, including our best friends, that continued Occupation is acceptable, when it is clear that absolutely no one is prepared to buy into this fallacious argument.
What we desperately require is a new generation of professional diplomats, free from the ideological messages of the extremes (be they from the Right or the Left) and who are able to put forward the many legitimate arguments on behalf of Israel without resorting to the lowest common denominator of anti-Semitism and yellow stars. It is cheapening, it is ineffective and ultimately it shows the lack of legitimacy for a continued Occupation which continues to weaken and diminish Israel in world opinion.
What we need at the United Nations and as the public face of our country in its difficult PR mission in the world are international figures such as Lord Jonathan Sacks or Alan Dershowitz who, while their support and commitment to Israel is unquestioned, are also able to realize and admit the faults where they exist. Their eloquence and power of argument on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people far outweigh the failure of a policy which can do nothing more than manipulate and cheapen the memory of the Holocaust.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.