Detached Netanyahu leads Israel towards isolation

The erosion in Israel’s international standing is taking place incrementally, though steadily

Yossi Mekelberg

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought his pulpit diplomacy to London last week. In his customary exaggerated fashion, he warned his British host, Prime Minister David Cameron, that the Middle East is facing disintegration as a result of “the twin forces of militant Islam – militant Sunnis led by ISIS and militant Shiites led by Iran.”

He did not spare the EU, criticizing it for suggesting some sort of soft sanctions on Israel’s Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. And as one could have expected, he lectured on the mortal dangers of the nuclear deal with Iran.

Netanyahu seemed to be in denial regarding the changing realities in Europe, including the growing readiness to make Israel pay a price for its government’s continuous intransigence and lack of sincerity in the search for peace with the Palestinians.

The erosion in Israel’s international standing is taking place incrementally, though steadily.

Yossi Mekelberg

International isolation

I wrote here a few months ago that the current Israeli government was sleepwalking the country into international isolation. Events in the past week indicate that this erosion in Israel’s international standing is taking place incrementally, though steadily while public opinion in the country is oblivious to it.

Three developments this past week should cause Israelis as a whole to ponder the direction the country it is taking in its international affairs. First, there was the disappointment that Israel will not get its wish for the U.S. Congress to block, or at least delay, an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.

Thousands of miles away, the European Parliament voted with an overwhelming majority, in favor of differentiating between goods made in the internationally recognized borders of Israel, and labelling those made in settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights. A third and more important, even if mainly symbolic, decision was taken by the U.N. General Assembly to allow the Palestinian flag to be flown in front of U.N. buildings across the world.

Diplomatic failure

All three decisions are indicative of the current failure of Israeli diplomacy, not to mention lack of judgement. Understandably Israel has legitimate concerns over the nuclear deal with Iran and the potential implications of Iranian power and influence in the region. It is even more concerning considering that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently – and despicably – stated that Israel will not live to see the twenty-five year span of this agreement.

The constant effort to undermine the authority of President Obama has led to strained relations with Israel’s closest and most important ally.

Yossi Mekelberg

However, the constant effort to undermine the authority and leadership of President Obama has consequently led to strained relations with Israel’s closest and most important ally, and can only be described as a diplomatic folly that damages Israeli national interest. Indeed, in the past Israel managed, with the help of other countries, to persuade the international community to impose sanctions on Iran and use quite effectively the threat of military actions in order to incentivise Iran to collaborate and negotiate over its nuclear programme. This proved to be successful, leading to a commitment from Iran, in both the interim agreement and the concluding one, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to never develop nuclear military capability. Israel – instead of shifting gears towards constructively contributing, even behind scenes, to the success of the agreement while addressing some of its flaws – took the route of opposing it altogether and even demanding an increase in sanctions.

It is one of the worst ruptures between an American president and an Israeli Prime Minister.

Yossi Mekelberg

Attack on Obama

Netanyahu entered into the domestic American political fray in an effort to stop the United States from ratifying the deal. He stopped at nothing, including a direct attack on President Obama in a speech in Congress, prompting Israel’s friends around the country to vociferously oppose the deal, and appealing directly to the Jewish community to oppose the agreement. In an act of poor judgement he got Israel immersed inside the US’s divided domestic political arena, exposing deep rifts among the Jewish community, not to mention putting their loyalty to question. This also opened one of the worst ruptures between an American president and an Israeli Prime Minister. Worse for Netanyahu, is that despite these relentless efforts, he failed miserably to block the U.S. signing of the deal.

The decision by the EU Parliament, in a non-binding vote, to label products made in Jewish settlements passed by a huge majority together with the U.N. General Assembly decision to display the Palestinian flag in front of its buildings are a clear expression of exasperation with Israeli policies. The complete stalemate in the peace process, coupled with the damaging expansion of Jewish settlements, leads the international community to believe that certain unilateral acts may stimulate change in Israel’s stance towards genuine readiness to negotiate peace with the Palestinians and curtail the settlements project. One can only reach the conclusion that this trend will only continue and even gather momentum, if Israel does not change its approach towards Palestinian self-determination and Palestinians’ rights.

In his typical style, Netanyahu’s response to the product labelling decision was to compare it to the Nazi era when Jewish shops were labeled and Jewish people were forced to wear a yellow badge identifying themselves Jewish. In his own words, “We remember history and we remember what happened when the products of Jews were labeled in Europe.” When one naively thought that the Israeli prime minister could not sink any lower in exploiting the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and distorting the lessons of this terrible episode in Jewish history – he just could not resist temptation! He did it in an effort to divert attention from his failing policies, which increasingly lead Israel into international isolation.

In many countries leaders would have relinquished their position for much less.

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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