“There was an overall attack on Israel, the sense of being under siege was overwhelming. Europe always only gave the support of a broken reed, and now as well. The U.S., despite what often demonstrated weakness on its part, still remained the decisive anchor for supporting Israel’s security, and for enduring a sweeping diplomatic attack.”
These words were not stated by a frustrated minister in the current Israeli government, but rather were written a little less than ten years ago by Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami in his memoirs (A Front Without the Rear, p. 308). At the time, the efforts of the Barak government to produce an agreement at Camp David and at subsequent negotiations went nowhere, and not because of the Israeli side. It was the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, who did not want to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and preferred the option of an armed intifada instead. Ben-Ami’s statement was an admission that, despite all the concessions given to the Palestinians by his government, he still felt that if the peace process does not advance, then Israel is doomed to face increasing international isolation.
Today the specter of Israeli isolation is being raised again. Newspaper columnists and politicians are looking at the setbacks Israel has to deal with in its relations with Egypt and Turkey. They are already counting the likely votes at the U.N. General Assembly, where the Palestinians are expected to present a draft resolution later this month upgrading their status at the U.N. to that of a non-member state observer. The assumption being worked into much media analysis is that if Israel only launched some spectacular initiative in the peace process, then it could break out from its isolation and reverse regional trends.
But is this assumption really true? It has been well-established that the revolts across the Arab world, in general, and in Egypt, in particular, have nothing to do with Israel. In a major analysis in The New York Review of Books of what is called the “Arab Spring,” Hussein Agha, an adviser to Palestinian leaders who is affiliated with Oxford University, and Rob Malley, a former official on President Clinton’s National Security Council, conclude that the eruption we are witnessing was chiefly against the corrupt leaders of the Arab world: “Citizens were put off by how their rulers took over public goods as private possessions and made national decisions under foreign influence.”
They characterize the Arab revolt of 2011 as a “popular rebuke to this waste.”
Agha and Malley deal with the question of Israel and simply set it aside: “The least visible, curiously yet wisely, has been Israel. It knows how much its interests are in the balance but also how little it can do to protect them. Silence has been the more judicious choice.” They back-handedly compliment Israeli policy during these months of revolutionary change. They essentially conclude that the Arab Spring is not an Israeli issue and it is a good thing that we kept out of it; in any case, they stress that it is beyond Israel’s capacity to do much about it. Given their conclusion that the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, will be the major beneficiaries of the Arab revolts, it is doubtful that there is an Israeli peace proposal that they would ever find acceptable.
What about the U.N.? Could Israel stop Palestinian action at the U.N. General Assembly by making new concessions to re-start negotiations, as some assert? The hard truth that no one admits is that during the last 18 years, while Israeli governments negotiated with the Palestinians, the PLO observer mission at the U.N. kept initiating anti-Israeli resolutions every year with the backing of the Arab group and the states of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Palestinians are not about to change.
There is a myth widely believed among many Israeli commentators that when the peace process moves forward, Israel’s position at the U.N. improves. These changes have always been marginal and they last only for a short period of time. When Israel and the PLO signed the original Oslo Accords on Sept. 13, 1993, it took three months and one day until the anti-Israeli resolutions were resumed on December 14, 1993. Mahmoud Abbas does not want to let go of his diplomatic hammer at the U.N., just like Arafat.
In any case, it is a mistake to judge Israel’s international standing by the history of U.N. voting patterns. There are states that are part of the U.N.’s automatic majority like Eritrea, Zimbabwe, or Yemen that are truly isolated in their bilateral relations with other countries. A more realistic measure of whether a country is isolated is whether world leaders visit or its leadership is welcomed in world capitals. Israel, which welcomes a third of the U.S. House of Representatives and most of Europe’s top leaders cannot be called isolated. Regardless of how they vote at the U.N., many states also seek out intimate bilateral relations with Israel based on security and intelligence ties. India will inevitably vote against Israel at the U.N., but India views Israel as an important strategic ally.
In summary, there is a mistaken conventional wisdom that it is within Israel’s power to alter fundamental political trends across the Middle East. Unfortunately, there are many tectonic shifts that are occurring underground in the region that Israel cannot influence. Resuming a dialogue with the Palestinians has a value in its own right, but any new peace talks will not stop Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan or stabilize Egypt. Israel faces difficult challenges in the year ahead. But it should not revert to worn-out diplomatic theories that did not work in the 1990s and will not help it today.