(First in a series.)
Although not quite over, September 2011 is one that Israelis are likely not soon to forget. It’s not that their whole world has been shattered, but many of the political threads that have held Israeli regional policy together for decades seem to have simultaneously broken leaving the Israeli “ship of state” floating aimlessly in the Eastern Mediterranean. Worse, it seems to have been hit with a political tsunami for which it – as well as its main supporters in Washington – was ill prepared.
Five years after Israel’s abortive invasion of Lebanon that left 20,000 Lebanese dead and the country’s infrastructure in ruins as a result of massive Israeli bombing, three years after Israel’s unconscionable military assault on Gaza, and one year after Israeli special forces stormed the Mari-Marmara Turkish aid ship to Gaza, killing 9 (8 Turks and one U.S. citizen) Israel finds itself more and more isolated both within the Middle East and in the world as a whole, its image tarnished, its credibility at a low point.
The U.S. Congress can vote for lop-sided pro-Israeli resolutions until it is blue in the face. The fact remains that over the past five years Israel’s international status has plummeted. Almost universally outside of the U.S. and a few of its closest allies, Israel is characterized as a rogue state and threat to peace. The comparisons between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is more and more compared to South Africa’s treatment of blacks under the apartheid system. Indeed, Israeli isolation is probably more total today than South Africa’s in the last days of apartheid. Its cynical strategy that the rest of the world can go to hell as long as it has the support of Washington is coming apart at the seams.
Among the recent slew of developments:
- Two strategic regional allies upon which Israel heavily relied to help extinguish anti-Israeli fires now appear far less willing to play their designated role – Turkey and Egypt.
- Turkish-Israeli relations are at an all-time low. The Mari-Marmara incident did not blow over; a significant political and military parting of the ways seems to be occurring as Turkey, essentially spurned in its attempt at European Union membership, turns east.
- Perhaps even more serious, is the decline in Israeli-Egyptian relations. The much touted 1979 Camp David Accord has not collapsed, but Egypt has called for its re-negotiation. Egypt’s unwillingness to support the Israeli sealing of Gaza and the partial re-opening of the Egyptian-Palestinian border crossing has somewhat defused the humanitarian crisis there.
- Egypt’s post-Mubarak posture – pressed by mass opposition in Egypt to the Israeli-Egyptian relationship – has also given momentum to new dialogue and possible cooperation between the main long-feuding Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.
- Regardless of the U.S. vete’s Palestinian UN membership or not, the momentum to support the principle of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations has been a great diplomatic setback for Israel that should not be under-estimated.
- And while Barack Obama – in perhaps his worst performance on the world stage – “stood by” Israel at the United Nations, U.S.-Israeli relations have become strained as the voices within the United States – both within circles of power and on the street – question whether the U.S.-Israeli relationship benefits or undermines the U.S. strategic position in the Middle East.
- As Israel finds itself more and more isolated in the Middle East, it’s turning even more so than in the past to what might be called the meshugener Christian fundamentalist fringe (John Hagee, Christians United For Israel) here in the USA that has always supported (politically and financially) settlement building and opposed negotiations with the Palestinians.
The fact of the matter is that the spectacular collapse of Israel’s strategic position is the result of trends that have been brewing for decades and is not simply the result of recently events. What has happened recently is that its near-eternal violation of international law and its contempt for UN resolutions excepting those serving its interests has caught up with Israel. It turns out that there is a limit to how long a country can ignore international law – even the United States or Israel – before the boomerang of the world’s conscience hits in the back of the neck.
A few months after Israeli Foreign Secretary Tzipi Livni suggested that Israel was facing nothing less than a crisis in legitimacy; things continue to fall apart for the Netanyahu government. Put all together, these threads and others tell yet another tale: the utter failure of what was called the Oslo Peace Process and with it, a dramatic failure in U.S. Middle East policy as well. Oslo is dead in the water and has been for a long while. It is only now finally after yet another unsuccessful attempt to raise it from the dead, that both Obama and Netanyahu understand that it is gone, history.
Long lauded as a path to peace, 18 years after its signing, it has turned out to be anything but. Oslo was important in that it provided Israel with a cover of global legitimacy that it has now lost with Washington’s encouragement and connivance from both Democratic and Republican administrations. Israel tried to string the process along for as long as possible. It was a two pronged strategy: talk peace while building settlements (and then a separation wall) that would make a two-state settlement that much more difficult to achieve.
From the outset, more than skeptical about Oslo’s chances of delivering an Israeli-Palestinian peace based upon political realism and justice, we do not mourn – but welcome – its collapse. It produced nothing but settlements and suffering. A new framework is needed; the time is now.
Ibrahim Kazerooni is completing a joint PhD program at the Iliff School for Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. Rob Prince is a lecturer in International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies; for the past seven years he has published a blog, The Colorado Progressive Jewish News.