Surrounding Israel with fences is Netanyahu’s new trump card

Israeli prime minister's reckless policies and rancorous rhetoric drive away even some of the country’s closest friends

Yossi Mekelberg

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No Israeli prime minister has ever contributed to the isolation of Israel from the world, as much as the current one Benjamin Netanyahu. His constant reckless policies and rancorous rhetoric drive away even some of the country’s closest friends. Erecting a fence all around Israel’s borders is Netanyahu’s newest trump card in ensuring Israeli security, in his own words "to protect the country from the wild beasts".

If isolating Israel politically was not enough, now Netanyahu seems determined to ghettoize it from its neighbors physically. The act itself and the rhetoric that accompanied it, provided a disturbing insight into the mind-set of the current Israeli political and military leadership. Self-evidently, Israel faces new security challenges in an ever-changing Middle East, which endures a protracted and violent turmoil.

Consequently, new threats are emerging, but with them also new opportunities. Building fences and walls epitomizes Netanyahu’s oversimplification of extremely complex conditions on Israeli borders. Furthermore, he employs the politics of fear to carry the public opinion.

One should take issue not only with Netanyahu’s strategy of protecting the citizens of Israel from future threat, through a complete physical separation from all of the country’s neighbours, but also his incendiary language. Demonizing and dehumanizing anyone and everyone who attempts to cross the border, calling them wild animals, is a sign of a leader losing his way. It is also a sign of weakness rather than a show of strength.

Undeniably, there are militant and terrorist elements unwavering in their drive to harm Israel and its citizens. Nevertheless, preventing attacks does not require inflammatory and degrading language Netanyahu-style. Are all Arabs who try to cross the border “wild beasts”, including those who escape from the atrocities of war?

Does Netanyahu perceive the refugees or asylum seekers from the Sudan and Eretria, fleeing for their lives, as “predators”? His choice of words is evidence of a politician who sees the other, whosoever the other is, as a threat and as an enemy.

Collective punishment?

To be sure, this act of putting an entire nation behind bars in the name of protecting them cannot be separated from the other string of policies, which portray all the Palestinians and their representatives, inside Israel and in the occupied territories, as untrustworthy and a menace to the Jewish state.

First came his call for the Jewish population in Israel, on the day of the last elections, to vote in order to prevent Arab parties from maximizing their representation, referring to their fundamental act of exercising their democratic right to vote, as an attack on the Jewish state.

Earlier this year Netanyahu depicted, following a terrorist act by a single Arab-Israeli in Tel Aviv, the entire Arab minority in Israel as a bunch of outlaws. Most recently the coalition government threatened to suspend a number of elected Arab MKs because they met with families of Palestinians, who requested their assistance with the return of the bodies of family members killed in attacks against Jews.

Building fences and walls epitomizes Netanyahu’s oversimplification of extremely complex conditions on Israeli borders

Yossi Mekelberg

These meetings might be controversial, but they are not illegal or illogical. They are not necessarily an expression of support for militancy, but of the right to be buried with dignity, regardless of the circumstances of death and also as a means to provide families with closure. Moreover, this unnecessary delay in bringing to rest the dead assailants causes huge resentment among the wider Palestinian population and triggers further tensions.

Netanyahu and his political allies are not on their own in advancing this type of nationalistic populism, which suggests that walls and fences are the only guarantor of one’s national interest. This approach puts Netanyahu in the camp of Donald Trump and the far right in Europe, who see any cross-border movement of people, as a threat to security and the character of a country. One wonders if this is the company that the Israeli leadership would like to be associated with.

Against basic traits

Furthermore, this inward looking approach is also a tragic reversal of the basic traits of the Zionist movement, which in essence led to the foundation of the state of Israel. The founders of the movement for the revival of the Jewish self-determination, aimed to bring down the physical and mental walls of the Jewish ghettos in the diaspora.

They saw segregation from the rest of the population, whether voluntary or imposed, as one of the root causes of the wretchedness of diaspora life. The return to the ancient land and founding of a Jewish state, as controversial as it might be, should have resulted in building a nation-state integrated within its international environment.

The fear of the other whether within Israel, the occupied territories, or even beyond its borders, is a return to a diaspora mentality, but within a country, which is armed to the teeth and is economically viable.

This can only spell dangerous news of going down the path of the ancient Jewish biblical notion of “… people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations”. It contradicts the image Israel is attempting to project to the world of a modern society with an advanced hi-tech economy and which harbors liberal Western values.

Sadly, the current Israeli government is leading the country towards international political isolation through its intransigence toward peace with the Palestinians, the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories and by the rejection of any criticism, even that coming from the closest of allies and friends.

The need to protect the country against potential threats is indisputable. What should be under scrutiny are the policies that leave the state and people of Israel believing that their survival relies on building a fortress- like Israel.
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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