Worldwide pressures on Israel to move ahead with the American-mediated negotiations with the Palestinians are mounting, with the obvious expectations that somehow they will lead to a dramatic Israeli concession such that will enable the signing of an agreement, the distribution of a Nobel Peace prize and a sense of global relief that yet another potential catastrophe was averted. In sum, the world will be a happier and much more peaceful place to live in -- definitely the Middle East.
Well, as much as this blog has always expressed preference for the diplomatic solutions of crises over violent ones, it is exactly the time to say "not so fast..."
The Arab Spring and its aftermath is a very clear reminder to open minded people that the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not at the root of chronic Middle East instability -- far from it. It is also the case that this is an important feature of Middle East reality and, as such, a conflict that should be resolved, and the sooner the better; and for that to happen, Israel also will have to make significant concessions. Still, it is a conflict like any other one, that is to say, that it has to have at least two to tango, and maybe even three, as was claimed by PM Netanyahu in his latest speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. So, pressures, while being a legitimate tool of international diplomacy, may not be so useful when applied only against one side.
Let us review some recent news stories widely circulating in Israel, much less so in other countries, in order to get a sense of what is happening and its likely implications. To start with, the difference in terms of volume of coverage of certain statements/events is in itself one of the problems that makes it difficult to people outside of the Middle East to understand the depth of feelings and sensitivities of many Israelis, hence a built-in failure in understanding what REALLY shapes public opinion there and with it political positions. As a famous line in an Israeli song says, "What you see from here, is not what you see from there."
Here is just a sample of recent news stories: President Rouhani of Iran stated clearly in his own language that Iran will NOT dismantle centrifuges and any other nuclear installation, also that the White House misunderstood the Iranian policy, and altogether misreads the spirit and letter of the recent agreement between Iran and the international community, which was hailed as an "historic breakthrough." Palestinian leaders continue to spell out anti-Jewish inflammation in the official organs of the Palestinian Authority [PA]; and the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem just publicly informed the entire world that there has never been a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, because King Solomon was a Muslim... no, not a joke, a real document! King Solomon lived 3000 years ago, Islam emerged in the 7th Century, but who cares when it comes to negate the very existence of those that the PA claims it wants to make peace with.
Then there was another horror story from Syria, where it was reported that 63 Palestinians starved to death in the Yarmuk Camp near Damascus as a result of the siege imposed by the Assad regime. Siege on Palestinians with death from starvation and no world protest? Can't be!... Yes, it can; it is not Gaza and Israel-bashing which is at stake, so who cares? And in Gaza not even one person starved to death. So, this is just a short list, in a nutshell, a representation, perhaps not the most convincing, of what is happening on the ground, what is reported and what are the implications of all that.
The news consumers in Israel read all that, so what can logically be their reaction? The quickness with which the Iranian nuclear agreement is unraveling is interpreted as another reason why Israel could and should rely on itself when it comes to crucial security issues, and Iran is definitely one of those; but also the delicate security issues just now discussed with the Palestinians.
Israeli leaders can argue publicly that there is no connection between the Iranian and Palestinian situations, but the Israeli public knows better, and if international agreements do not work here, why will they work there?
So, when PM Netanyahu refers to Rouhani's statements by issuing the inevitable "I told you so" statement, he scores big in Israel, where every public opinion poll shows a dwindling belief that a lasting peace agreement with the Palestinians is at all possible.
Such skepticism is greatly enhanced by recent Palestinian statements, the likes of those cited above, which for many Israelis indicate the futility of the current round of talks, as well as the double standards of governments and segments of public opinion in the West, which cry foul over Israeli alleged mistreatment of Palestinians, and keep quiet over real atrocities committed against them in Arab countries.
Double standard talk has been the battle cry of many right wing Israelis when they express their objections to world pressures being applied against Israel. It is a formidable argument in a society whose history has been shaped by persecution and a sense of isolation. Am levadad yishkon [a people to itself], is a traditional Jewish attitude being adopted by many Israelis, not just avowed right wingers. Threatening them with isolation, therefore, is inevitably less credible compared with such a threat against other countries.
That said, the repeated talk by Secretary Kerry about Israel's growing isolation as a result of lack of progress in the talks with the Palestinians rings somewhat hollow. Not only because the current American Administration lost a great deal of credibility in Israel, as well as the rest of the Middle East, due to the U-turns in Iran and Syria, but also because it seems to be one-sided.
On top of all that, there are clear signs that the talk about isolation and boycott, while irritating many Israelis, is somehow overblown, and not borne out by reality. The visit in Israel of PM Harper of Canada, a member of the G-8 club and his speeches there may attest to that.
Just today, Lockheed Martin announced the establishment of a R& D center in Israel. Boycott? They know better, and with them many others who show so much interest In investing in Israel.
Netanyahu definitely can be encouraged by that, but encouragement should lead him to insist on the security issues of the negotiations, on reciprocity, on creating mechanisms of effective verifications, and not on the settlements. There are enough in the world who use the Israel blame argument behind every bush, why provide them with unnecessary ammunition?