Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
Israel needs supporters around the world to save it from itself.
The best thing that its boosters in Australia and elsewhere can do now is to abandon myopic support of the nation, its government and its dangerous prime minister.
A succession of international opinion polls has revealed increasing public frustration with Israeli policies. There is declining support for the nation even in the United States.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urgently needs to be reminded that international diplomatic, political and public support for Israel is not unconditional. Every day in Gaza, every death in Gaza increases the prospect that Israel’s great fear of “de-legitimisation” by the international community will be realised.
If Israel is indeed facing an existential threat, then Netanyahu bears the lion’s share of blame. For years he has held all the cards in the stand-off between Israelis and Palestinians and failed to use them for his nation’s long-term benefit. He has allowed events to deteriorate so disastrously that Israel’s Gaza adventure will inevitably diminish his nation’s international standing still further.
Netanyahu has taken his nation down a path of confrontation from which it will be hard to return. He has provided Israel’s enemies with more ammunition to attack the nation than any other Prime Minister since Menachem Begin launched the misbegotten invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and trashed his reputation as a Nobel peace prize recipient.
Since he took the reins in 2009, Netanyahu has fulfilled the worst fears of Israelis and friends abroad who believed in the prospect of a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians – the only path by which Israel can survive and prosper.
Hand-in-hand with rejectionist politicians, an aggressive settler movement and those who believe in an expansionist Israel, Netanyahu has determinedly blocked Palestinian aspirations for nationhood – the very same aspirations that the Jewish diaspora fulfilled in 1948. Jewish settlements in occupied territories and the “security wall” are merely physical manifestations of wide-ranging policies that undermine any prospect of an equitable settlement under Netanyahu.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have become increasingly despairing while those in the Gaza Strip have become more angry and outraged at their imprisonment. Of course there is a surge in hatred, of course there is a turning to more extreme forms of resistance.
At the same time a succession of international opinion polls has revealed increasing public frustration with Israeli policies. There is declining support for the nation even in the United States.
This view is not new but it is growing. It began as far back as the Lebanon misadventure when Israel’s claim to be a “plucky little state amongst a sea of enemies” first slipped. It had become an aggressor. Its complicity in the massacre of Palestinians in two refugee camps under Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon (later to become Prime Minister), merely hastened the fall from grace. Its brutal attempts to suppress the Palestinian uprising, the intifada, in 1987 accelerated the trend.
It took a much more far-sighted and able man than Netanyahu to reclaim some of that lost status.
Confronted yet again by a disaster in the battle for international opinion, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was eventually forced by the intifada to negotiate with “terrorist” Yasser Arafat’s PLO. Rabin brought his nation closer to peace than any other Israeli politician and might well have succeeded had he not been assassinated by a right-wing Israeli fanatic opposed to the peace process.
Rabin, a military commander and hero, told me once that every war inevitably ended with opponents talking to each other. This was on the same occasion on which he kicked me out of his office for being impertinent.
Now, as Israel’s international reputation takes a renewed hammering, Netanyahu needs to recognise that the other “terrorist” organisation, Hamas, also reflects legitimate Palestinian aspirations. Israel encouraged the growth of Hamas in the 1980s so it could divide and undermine Arafat’s secular PLO – an irony lost on most today. That policy rebounded badly when Hamas won democratic elections in Gaza in 2006 and unsurprisingly proceeded to impose Islamist social mores on its constituents. Its public position was aggressively anti-Israeli but, while reporting from there, it was made clear to me by Hamas leaders that under the right circumstances the public and private postures could be very different – as is always the case in international disputes.
But Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon failed to heed the lessons that Rabin learnt in the 80s.
Their policies of increasing the stranglehold on Gazans in their prison and refusing to deal in any way with their elected government, while tightening the fist of occupation on West Bank and East Jerusalem and leaving no hope for peace have led directly to the latest series of catastrophes.
No one needs to condone the kidnap and murder of three young Israeli settlers – arguably the most immediate trigger for a series of events that led to the battle in Gaza – nor for Hamas rockets being fired indiscriminately into civilian areas of Israel. But these actions are easily understood as an outgrowth of frustration, despair and anger brought about by the policies of Netanyahu’s government.
Gaza itself is now isolated from the outside world by Israel and by an antagonistic new regime in Egypt. It leaves Hamas little choice but to continue the battle since the only long-term ceasefire (proposed by Egypt and the US and accepted by Israel) would spell total capitulation. Israel went on to reject a second proposal.
Israel will naturally win the Battle of Gaza. Indeed, it can hardly be described as a battle at all since it is so one-sided. The death toll on both sides makes that abundantly clear.
The Israeli military annual budget of some $US14 billion is supplemented by a US contribution of $US3 billion a year, plus a further $US235 million for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system Israel deploys to render Hamas’ comparatively puny rockets ineffective.
Faced with such overwhelming military firepower and by such political intransigence, Hamas will continue to fight in the only way it can for as long as it can – from amidst the chaos of a devastated city in one of the most densely crowded places on earth. Some of its attacks will inevitably be launched from heavily populated areas of Gaza. Just about everywhere is densely packed while to “come out and fight in the open” – as Israel seems to be daring the resistance to do – is a ludicrous invitation to suicide in the face of such overwhelming and sophisticated force. Armies hate urban warfare where overwhelming force becomes vulnerable to guerilla tactics.
In government, Hamas has proved itself incompetent and aggressive. But it is not, as Netanyahu charges, built in the mould of the extreme Islamist movement in Iraq and Syria, ISIS. It could be brought to the table. It has already agreed to a unity government with the secular PLO – a moved blocked by Israel.
The great sadness is that Netanyahu does not appear to be the man for this pivotal moment.
Israel needs someone with enough stature and vision to relaunch the nation on a course that Yitzhak Rabin set when he declared "We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough!"
Peter George was the ABC’s first Middle East Correspondent and reported the region over 25 years.