A U.S. Shift Away from Israel?

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An increasingly critical U.S. civil society, in concert with global opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank, will eventually pose a serious threat to Israeli impunity—but not until the U.S. government revises its current policy of providing nearly unconditional support for Israel. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian / Flickr)

Whatever global support Israel once enjoyed is slowly trickling away amid rising international opprobrium over the civilian toll Israel has exacted in Gaza.

Leaders from all corners of the world have voiced their condemnation of Israel’s actions—except, that is, leaders from the United States, where knee-jerk support for Israel is still the norm. But change seems to be on the horizon for the U.S. public, if not U.S. leaders.

To date over 1,800 Palestinians have been killed since Israel’s invasion of the strip, at least 70 percent of them civilians. Nearly 450,000 more Gazans have been displaced by the conflict. Targets of Israeli attacks have included a rehabilitation center, hospitals, dozens of mosques, and thousands of private homes.

Israel claims that it’s taken extensive measures to prevent civilian casualties. Indeed, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have at times warned civilians in advance of strikes through leaflets, text messages, and more controversially, “roof knocks”—a tactic of firing a smaller explosive ahead of a full-blown strike that has been condemned by Amnesty International.

But when there is nowhere to flee, such warnings are nothing more than cruel prophecies. The Gaza strip is 25 miles long and a few miles across—roughly the size of Detroit, but with twice the population—and its borders are sealed tight by Israel and Egypt. To make matters worse, an Israeli-imposed “buffer zone” has left 44 percent of Gaza off-limits to Gazans, who risk death if they remain or attempt to return to their homes. Even UN evacuation shelters have been bombed by the IDF.

Given the extent to which civilians have been made to suffer in this conflict, it’s no surprise that the UN Human Rights chief has suggested Israel may be guilty of war crimes.

That’s an increasingly popular opinion among world governments, who have lined up in opposition to the latest violence.

No Warmth in the Developing World

While some developing countries have close relationships with Israel due to its economic support or development programs, most of the developing world is overwhelmingly in solidarity with Palestine.

In Latin America the trend has been particularly acute. Ecuador protested the recent violence in Gaza by recalling its ambassador to Israel on July 17th. El Salvador, Chile, Peru, and Brazil subsequently followed suit, with Chile—a country with a significant Palestinian population—even deciding to end free-trade negotiations with Israel.

At the most recent Mercosur trade bloc meeting, Brazil was joined by Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela in a statement to “energetically condemn the disproportionate use of force by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, which in the majority affects civilians, including children and women.”

In Africa, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has long identified with the Palestinian cause. During the apartheid era, Israel supported South Africa’s racist government, earning the ire of the ANC and its allies. Bishop Desmond Tutu, the country’s largest trade union (COSATU), and the ANC have all described Israel as an apartheid state. The ANC in parliament has demanded the recall of South Africa’s ambassador to Israel and the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to South Africa.

The trend is also playing out in the Middle East, where there was never much love lost with Israel in the first place. Israel’s actions in Gaza have only deepened the fissures between Israel and Turkey, a NATO member that was a close ally of Israel for decades—until the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish-flagged humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American dual citizen.

In response to Operation Protective Edge, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan donned a keffiyeh in parliament, declared diplomatic normalization with Israel impossible, and claimed that Israel’s “barbarism has surpassed even Hitler’s”—an overblown remark, yet one that highlights the degree to which relations between the two countries have deteriorated.

The West Inches Away

Israel is also losing support from its traditional allies in the West.

In Europe, limited Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) initiatives are gaining ground. Already the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy have warned companies against doing business in Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements.

New EU bank guidelines also prohibit dealings with Israeli entities in settlements. And in response to the recent crisis, the leftist parties of Norway have endorsed a call for an official boycott of Israeli goods produced in the occupied territories.

Israeli officials are beginning to worry about the potential economic costs of BDS. Some are concerned exports could decrease by $5.7 billion with even a limited European boycott.

In the United States, the bedrock of international support for Israel, the “special relationship” is still strong. But while the government has been as unconditionally supportive of Israel as ever, U.S. civil society is undergoing a significant shift.

The change is especially pronounced in the American Jewish community. Young Jews are less religious and less attached to Israel than their parents. According to the Pew Forum, only 38 percent of young Jews believe Israel is making a “sincere effort” at peace, and only 17 percent believe the settlements benefit Israeli security. Groups like the centrist J Street and the more progressive Jewish Voice for Peace now play important roles in shaping Jewish opinions on Israel, eroding the monopoly once enjoyed by the more hardline American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Although polls still show that a vast majority of Americans sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, a shift in media coverage has illuminated the perspectives of Palestinians more than ever. The rise of social media has allowed for greater dissemination of Palestinian narratives and alternative coverage—like the story of Tariq Abu Khdeir.

A 15-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Abu Khdeir was beaten and arrested by police in Jerusalem after his cousin Mohammed was murdered by young Israeli extremists. As an American, Abu Khdeir has received attention for a story that otherwise might not have been told.

The gradual change in media coverage may explain recent U.S. polling that shows greater sympathy for Palestinians and lower approval of Israel than in the past. Recent Pew Research Center polling shows that among 18-29-year-old Americans, more blame Israel than blame Hamas for the violence. These findings echo an earlier study, which showed that Americans under 50 are much more likely than their older counterparts to sympathize with Palestinians.

The increasing popularity of the BDS movement is further evidence of changes in civil society. BDS has gone from a fringe movement to a mainstream campaign, with the debate playing out on the front page of The Nation and reverberating throughout the foundation world. Both the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches have passed resolutions divesting from numerous companies connected to the occupation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has divested from G4S, a British company that has provided security services to Israeli settlements and prisons.

”I Can’t Hear You”

These incremental shifts in U.S. civil society and popular opinion, in concert with global opposition to Israel’s actions, will eventually pose a serious threat to Israeli impunity—but not until the U.S. government revises its current policy of providing nearly unconditional support for Israel. And that can’t be done until progressive voices are loud enough to compete with the amplified pro-Israel lobby.

As Peter Beinart explained in a telling anecdote of a Jewish American friend’s brief conversation with President Obama:

My friend told the president that many American Jews were unhappy with Israel’s direction and open to American pressure aimed at changing it. “I can’t hear you,” Obama replied. My friend began repeating himself, but Obama cut him off. “You don’t understand,” the president repeated, more slowly and with emphasis: “I … can’t … hear … you.”

But soon, dissent may be too loud to ignore. The increasing plurality of opinions within the Jewish community, the changing media landscape, and the growing success of BDS mean it is only a matter of time.

Noah Habeeb is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.