Eight Days in Israel’s Battle Against Pariah Status

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Israeli Labor party members Amir Peretz (2-R), Eitan Cabel (R), Daniel Ben-Simon (2-L) and Raleb Majadele (L) hold a press conference in their Knesset party hall on January 18, 2011. (Photo: Kobi Gideon – EPA)

Last Saturday, July 2, the Israeli politician Amir Peretz slipped onto a plane in London, and placing both his seat and himself in an upright position,  escaped back to Israel just hours ahead of an arrest warrant.  His crime: Serving as minister of defense during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when civilians were killed along with the Hezbollah fighters Israel was trying to teach a lesson. Under a peculiarity of British law called “universal jurisdiction” (that brought Augusto Pinochet to court), citizens can make war crime cases against figures from other lands, who can then be taken into custody if they set foot on British soil.  Never mind that Peretz is center-left politically, a former leader of the Labor Party.  Two years ago former foreign secretary Tzipi Livni, the most prominent promoter of peace talks, was briefly served. The top spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces traveled to London under an assumed name. Peretz was wilier still, sneaking into Britain in the first place by making an adroit head-fake: He e-mailed ahead that he was canceling a planned speech, then showed up anyway.

This looming threat of arrest has proved a bit embarrassing to UK politicians as well. When foreign secretary William Hague was in Tel Aviv a few months ago, he spent a great deal of time explaining that Britain was moving toward changing its law to accommodate Israeli officials but that these changes take time. Britain is, after all, the country that played the single biggest role in establishing Israel as a state, from the Balfour Declaration to the timely withdrawal of mandate troops in 1948.  Its ties with Israel are deep, even profound. Which, put another way, is yet another comment on Israel’s international image.

By most accounts, the great public diplomacy challenge facing the Jewish State is the occupation of Palestinian territories, a reliable source of outrage for some 44 years.  And indeed the week brought news that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had, for the first time in three years, expropriated private Palestinian land to make a new settlement. The Palestinian village of Qaryout was losing 47 acres and the settler outpost of Hayovel was gaining the same amount, plus official status as “legal” — albeit only in the eyes of Israel itself, every other country counting the 120-plus West Bank settlements as a violation of the Geneva Convention. The anti-settlement group Peace Now pointed out that the one-sided transaction north of Ramallah also contravened an Israeli promise to Washington from 2005 not to take any more Palestinian land.

On Friday, Israel put all hands on deck to intercept a few hundred activists who bought plane tickets to Tel Aviv with plans to proceed to the West Bank and show solidarity with the Palestinians. The “flytilla” was an obscure sort of protest, intended to provoke an overreaction by Israel along the lines of last year’s flotilla fiasco. Did it? About 125 people were arrested at the airport, some without even making it to immigration: Israeli police pulled a paddy wagon next to an EasyJet flight from Zurich and carried away 50 activists.  Another 300 were prevented from boarding at their city of departure after Israel warned airlines they’d be arrested and deported.  Netanyahu called the operation a great success while columnist Eitan Haber said the country had “taken leave of its senses” by over-emphasizing security over democracy. “Instead of welcoming these loony visitors, permitting them to sing, whistle and even raise signs, the world is liable to see the ‘Zionist storm troopers’ in action once again,” Haber wrote.

Sunday brought a fresh work week, and two developments. One was preparations in the Knesset for the final readings of a bill that would make it a civil offense for any Israeli to support a boycott of West Bank settlements.  The bill aims to punish, for example, Israeli actors who last year announced they would not perform in Ariel, a giant settlement the mayor of which says it was located deep in the West Bank in order to deny Palestinians a state with contiguous territory. The bigger target, of course, is the international boycott, mostly observed in Europe, of products produced in the settlements and sold abroad. The so-called BDS (for boycott, divestment and sanctions)  effort has already prompted some companies to shutter factories in the West Bank rather than parry accusations of abetting colonialism or even apartheid.  The bill was strongly backed by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, which frequently frames criticism of Israel’s actions as an assault on its very existence. “De-legitimization” is the the phrase bandied about — far too frequently for Shlomo Avineri, a former foreign ministry senior official who railed against the practice in Haaretz.

“The truth is there are no significant moves afoot anywhere on Earth to delegitimize Israel,” Avineri says. “Israel’s government has turned delegitimization – an issue located on the vocal but ephemeral margins of international political discourse – into a problem that must be dealt with. It has thereby granted a marginal, unimportant position a status out of all proportion to its true dimensions.”

So what’s the problem? Depends whom you ask. In March a BBC survey of residents of 27 countries found Israel clustered with Iran, North Korea and Pakistan as a country seen as having a “mainly negative influence” on the world.  But that’s not how Israelis see themselves. Sunday brought a new poll from Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann, the Israeli professors who have been tracking public opinion since the Oslo Accords. “The Jewish-Israeli public is not afraid,” they report. “Only approximately one-half of respondents said they believed that Israel was isolated in the international arena, which is more or less the relative size of the population that believed that a year ago.”