Perpetual self-sabotage

Israel’s approach to international relations is reactive, uncompromising, self-righteous and often ignorant of other actors’ motivations.

PM Netanyahu with Blair, Catherine Ashton 311 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
PM Netanyahu with Blair, Catherine Ashton 311
(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
A strong Israel is vital to the future of the free world, including my home, America. However, Israel’s international relations are driven by an approach so self-sabotaging that it undermines its ability to fulfill its vital role. Israel and its American friends cannot afford this approach for much longer.
I do not argue for a strong US-Israel relationship for ideological reasons, because the argument carries little weight. I have come to realize the “shared values” argument may only be persuasive, at the end of the day, when there’s a vote at the United Nations. You throw an average Israeli into the home of an average American, and there is going to be cultural friction. They will both believe in democracy and freedom, but the Israeli is not going to have as much in common with the American as we Israel-supporters might think. The Israeli will likely approach his agreeable and jovial American friend in that aggressive and abrasive Israeli manner, when in fact he ought to be slightly more agreeable and jovial himself if he wants (or needs) the American’s appreciation (while the American could afford to be slightly more aggressive and abrasive).
Israelis cannot and should not change who they are, but they can change their international-relations mentality, which is reactive, uncompromising, selfrighteous and often ignorant of other actors’ motivations. This mentality can, perhaps over-simplistically, be summarized as “we do it our way because it’s our way,” not because it’s necessarily the best way.
Israel stopped the Mavi Marmara in 2010 from docking in Gaza with its weapons and extremists, but killed nine people in the process. Israel had a plan to inform the media about the event, but the plan broke down. In the chaos that followed, it took several hours for Israel to put out its first statement – from the often confrontational Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. The nature of his response characterized the media’s subsequent framing of Israel’s actions. In the end, it was concluded that Israel had done nothing significantly wrong, but had already bungled a massive public diplomacy battle – a loss from which it has still not recovered.
OPERATION CAST Lead gives us a similar example. The IDF went further than any army in any war in history in attempting to protect civilians, but appeared to have no communications plan in place to inform the press and foreign governments about these actions – an all-toocommon example of Israel choosing to isolate itself. This resulted in a public diplomacy failure so costly that the retraction of a key charge in the ensuing Goldstone Report by Richard Goldstone himself could not change the original false impression.
Israel also received President Barack Obama’s May 19 Middle East speech quite negatively, when not only was there more in it to Israel’s advantage than the Palestinians’ (“land swaps,” “demilitarized Palestinian state,” “negotiations,” etc. – all things that most Palestinians are against and most Israelis are for), but the strategy of Obama’s approach showed more promise for Israel than for the Palestinians.
A challenge to staving off Palestinian unilateralism is that the European contingent of the UN Security Council, France and Britain, has lined up to support a General Assembly resolution for Palestinian statehood. That puts Obama in the last position he and Israel wanted – that of being the only “no” voice in a Security Council vote.
The only way France and Britain will vote with the US is if negotiations get under way with at least the appearance of promise – and that was Obama’s strategy with his speech.
Obama spoke a few days before the G8 meeting in France last month, where he knew the issue would come up. A few days later, the French announced an initiative to get the two sides back to negotiations. What happened to this initiative? Israel pressured the US to reverse its support for the French effort and the Palestinians, who had welcomed the French initiative and were publicly questioning the wisdom of a General Assembly vote, have since re-committed to their unilateral strategy. Although Obama has mismanaged the peace process since taking office, he chose one of the better options going forward, but Israel made sure it wouldn’t be executed.
Despite Obama’s pragmatic approach to the General Assembly vote, the majority of Israelis were ready to rip his head off immediately after he said “1967 borders.” This immediate, blind anger is indicative of the Israeli foreign-relations approach: obstinacy and petulance. Netanyahu, via the international press, told the West it should oppose the Fatah-Hamas unity deal. The problem with this is that the Western nations want to come across as balanced mediators of the conflict, not as taking instructions from Israel.
Netanyahu’s comments preempted the West’s reaction, giving it no chance of avoiding this appearance unless it took another line, which it ultimately did.
Actions like this, and Netanyahu’s public lecturing of Obama on the 1967 borders, are often justified in Israel as political moves to keep the coalition happy. Many Israelis feel Netanyahu should be sticking up for Israel even more vocally, and in Israel this makes sense, because the loudest and most aggressive tend to have the most influence. But in the international community, it reinforces the perception of Israel as a bully.
Many laugh this off as “the way Israelis are,” but this comes at a cost that is not worth the price; Israel can and must do better.
Further, Israel has shown an uncanny ability to blunder its own domestic policies in very public ways, adding to its negative perception. The housing issue in Jerusalem, for example, when the municipality announced new construction at exactly the wrong time, when Vice President Joe Biden, a strong Israel supporter, was in town, causing him – and Israel – significant embarrassment, and handing Israel’s enemies an easy victory. And this week, the Government Press Office’s un-Western-like threat to journalists intending to cover the flotilla (who were told in a statement that “participation in the flotilla is an intentional violation of Israeli law and is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the State of Israel for ten years, to the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions”) caused enough of an international stir that Netanyahu needed to walk back the GPO’s ill-advised “warning.” These sorts of homegrown blunders create unnecessary bad press for Israel, with nothing to be gained.
Israel can be its own worst enemy, often contributing to its delegitimization. Its mismanagement of the Mavi Marmara and Operation Cast Lead, to use two of many examples, allowed Israel’s detractors to rationally criticize it based on the only evidence available to everyone; because Israel failed to provide timely information. The only information available to the world was that coming from Israel’s enemies. This factor also makes efforts to take positive messages about Israel to the world less effective.
Despite its legitimate claims of excellence in many regards, Israel is sabotaging itself by enforcing the growing international perception of it as an obstinate and petulant actor.
The writer was a 2010-2011 Menachem Begin Heritage Center Israel Government Fellow.