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Israel sleepwalks into international isolation

Israel is sleepwalking towards international isolation unless it changes course sharply and quickly

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

For the last six months Israel was pre-occupied with electing a new parliament and forming a coalition government. Most democracies conduct this process in a quicker and simpler manner. Throughout these long months of campaigning and the horse-trading like negotiations of building a coalition, time almost stood still on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Most of the Israeli political system closed ranks in avoiding saying anything too meaningful about the topic. It has been mainly the same old mantras, tiptoeing carefully around what is probably the most important issue that Israel is facing. Politicians either avoided the topic or reinforced views that consolidated their support in the ballot box. One could mainly hear clichés about the need for security or the lack of a Palestinian partner for peace, instead of more complex views on an intricate conflict that needs an innovative solution implemented by courageous leadership.

Worrying trends

No less worrying was that the international community subscribed to the Israeli narrative that election time is the wrong time for addressing the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It might be seen, the argument goes, as an intervention in the elections themselves, harming the parties that support peace based on a two-state solution along, give or take, the June 4, 1967 borders. This unholy alliance of suspending even temporarily tackling one of the longest disputes in modern history was a folly which only exacerbated an already desperate situation.

An even worse folly is evident in the view held by the current Israeli government, and especially it’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, that the present illusory status quo enables Israel to perpetuate the occupation while expanding Jewish settlements indefinitely without any international repercussions. This bubble is starting to burst as we witness a flurry of international activity that all points towards a similar direction, which is an international community that is losing patience with Israeli policies regarding the Palestinian occupied territories. There is a strong sense among the international community that the Israelis see their oppressive occupation and defying international law and resolutions as cost-free. Though one should not be surprised if this is changing. For instance, Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), went public last week in an interview with The Associated Press to express her frustration with the Israelis and Palestinians for not providing her office with information regarding alleged war crimes committed in last summer’s war in Gaza. She warned that if she did not receive this information she “will be forced to find it from elsewhere, or I may perhaps be forced to just go with just one side of the story. That is why I think it’s in the best interest of both sides to provide my office with information.”

The warning is particularly aimed at Israel, considering that the Palestinians accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction and joined the court on April 1 in hopes that Israeli politicians and commanders would be persecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer. Bensouda’s determination to pursue the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, also allegedly committed by Hamas, is reinforced by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence which collected 111 testimonies from soldiers who participated in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. The picture painted by these testimonies is very bleak. One such description talks about the use of excessive force led by “the guiding military principle of ‘minimum risk to our forces, even at the cost of harming innocent civilians.’” The testimonies point towards allegedly treating all Gazan people as legitimate targets, and considering the entire place a combat zone, resulting in destroying infrastructure even when it was not operationally necessary. Moreover, vandalism and looting of Arab property seem to be more prevalent among IDF soldiers than ever before. This put once more Israeli occupation and methods of war under scrutiny. This is particularly disturbing considering that the IDF claims to be “the most moral army in the world.” On the basis of this report the IDF together with the politicians, who send it on these missions, need to embark on a genuine soul search before the ICC does it for them.

Mounting pressure

The mounting pressure on Israel does not stop with the threat of prosecution in the ICC. There is a growing momentum of pressure to recognize Palestine as a state, and call for action against Israel in various international organizations. In an announcement last week by the Holy See, it declared it was signing a treaty which recognises Palestine as a state. This is a continuation of a movement among the international community towards recognising Palestinian statehood regardless of peace negotiations with Israel or a decision by the U.N. Security Council. This weakens Israel’s position in any future peace negotiations, as it relies on it as one of the most powerful bargaining chips Israel has vis-à-vis the Palestinians. For Pope Francis to grant President Mahmoud Abbas a private audience, calling him an “angel of peace,” as he did last week, is further evidence of the constant erosion of Israel’s diplomatic standing. A similar trend can be seen among various international organisations. It is rather unlikely that the football governing body FIFA will expel Israel from its ranks as requested by the Palestinian Football Association when it meets later this month. However, this very important international body expressed its desire that Israel would allow Palestinian football players freedom of movement and halt the harassment against them. Furthermore, the Palestinian football authority requested FIFA stop five teams based in Jewish settlements from taking part in the Israeli league. Until recently such a request would not even have been discussed. However, in the current international atmosphere, the request is considered legitimate and the President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, called on Israel to make concessions to avert the risk of sanctions against it.

Another expression of the frustration regarding the lack of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came from a group of former very senior European politicians, known as the European Eminent Persons Group. They published a letter last week addressed to Federica Mogherini, the foreign policy chief of the EU, calling for a new EU approach to help in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In no uncertain terms they asserted that in their opinion Netanyahu “…has little intention of negotiating seriously for a two-state solution…” They encouraged a more pro-active EU policy that will make accountable whoever is obstructing a peace agreement. There is little doubt that this group of respected and experienced former officials see Israel’s behaviour, in addition to Palestinian disunity, as the major reasons for the absence of peace more than twenty years after the Oslo Accords.

This sudden surge in international activity is no coincidence. It reflects a strong sense of despair combined with urgency that without a pro-active international community, the two-state solution is fast disappearing. Considering the composition of the current Israeli government, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that its policies will only attract increasing criticism and potentially political, legal and economic pressures. Between obliviousness and defiance, Israel is sleepwalking towards international isolation unless it changes course sharply and quickly.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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