Reality Check: Not so fast

Netanyahu shouldn't allow the Arab League’s decision to approve direct talks go to his head.

The Arab League’s decision to approve direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is a clear-cut diplomatic victory for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been lobbying hard for the resumption of such talks.
The prime minister’s recent visits to Washington, Cairo and Amman have paid off and international pressure will soon be brought to bear on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to put to one side his understandable skepticism concerning Netanyahu’s real intentions and agree to meet him around the negotiating table.
But before Netanyahu allows this rare diplomatic success to go to his head, he should pay attention to the worrying statement made by the new British prime minister David Cameron during his visit to Turkey last week, for it provides a serious warning as to how poorly Israel is viewed in the international community. Addressing Turkish businessmen in Ankara, Cameron first sharply attacked Israel’s behavior in the Mavi Marmara affair, saying “the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable.”
And then, more significantly, the Conservative leader went on to say: “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”
Cameron’s words were not chosen purely to please his Turkish audience. Just over a month ago, during a debate in the House of Commons, he declared: “Everybody knows that we are not going to sort out the problem of the Middle East peace process while there is, effectively, a giant open prison in Gaza.”
The greatest threat to Israel right now comes not on the battlefield, but from the diplomatic and the assault on Israel’s legitimacy and the country’s sovereign right to act in self defense. The understanding for Israel’s position that world leaders displayed immediately after the end of Operation Cast Lead has evaporated over time, helped by the findings of the Goldstone Report, but even so, the description of Gaza as a “prison camp” or “open prison” is not the rhetoric Israel is accustomed to hearing from the leader of one the European Union countries more friendly to Israel.
Before the knee-jerk reactions kick in and those on the right look to label Cameron as “anti-Israel” or worse, it should be noted that the young prime minister is on record as saying: “I am proud not just to be a Conservative, but a Conservative Friend of Israel.”
INDEED, CAMERON’S new coalition government has recently moved to remove one the greatest points of friction in Israel-UK relations, the British law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes. This law, for example, allowed UK lawyers representing Palestinians in Gaza to apply successfully for an arrest warrant against opposition leader Tzipi Livni, in advance of a planned trip to London.
In Livni’s case, the warrant was issued by a magistrate based on Livni’s leadership role in Operation Cast Lead and a justified fear of arrest led the former foreign minister to cancel her trip to the British capital. Mid-career IDF officers, meanwhile, have accepted for some time that they will have to forgo a year’s study-leave at British military academies because of this law.
However last month, the UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke announced that the British government will act “at the first opportunity” to change the law. The government will take the power of issuing arrest warrants on war crimes charges out of the hands of low-ranking magistrates, and require instead the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, who is expected to take a much more cautious approach to approving such warrants.
The previous Labor government had pledged numerous times to remove this bone of contention between Jerusalem and London but never followed through, so Cameron deserves the credit for moving quickly on this issue, particularly given the opposition of his Lib Dem coalition colleagues to reform of this law.
BUT AS EXPECTED, Cameron’s remarks caused the usual outrage among the established UK Jewish community, with the president of British Jewry’s umbrella organization criticizing the prime minister’s “one-sided, emotive language,” although it is doubtful that Cameron’s stance on Gaza bothered the majority of British Jews.
A fascinating survey of UK Jews and their attitudes to Israel, conducted earlier this year by the highly respected Institute for Jewish Policy Research and just recently published, found that British Jews are much more dovish than their Israeli counterparts.
Out of the 4,000 UK Jews polled, 78 percent said they were in favor of a two-state solution (with only 15% opposed); 74% are opposed to settlement expansion and a surprising 52% think the Israeli government should negotiate with Hamas, compared with 39% against.
And no, the survey did not just question “self-hating Jews.”
Ninety percent of those questioned regard Israel as the “ancestral homeland” of the Jewish people, 87% believe Jews have “a special responsibility” to ensure its survival and 72% of those polled said they considered themselves Zionists.
The views of British Jewry, or even those of the British prime minister, are not particularly important in the wider picture of Middle East diplomacy. But they do provide an interesting insight into how a sympathetic Western audience sees the present situation.
If Netanyahu is serious about direct talks with the Palestinians, he must be aware of the price Israel will have to pay to ensure they succeed. If he simply intends on playing for time and not changing the situation, then we can expect further and more damaging criticism from our diplomatic allies and a serious erosion of Israel’s international position.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.