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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Alon Ben-Meir: Netanyahu's self-inflicted multiple defeats

"Israel cannot afford with impunity to ignore this enormous change in circumstances"

In the past several weeks, Prime Minister Netanyahu suffered four defeats that undoubtedly will have serious repercussions on Israel’s global standing, especially if he succeeds in forming the next Israeli government. President Obama’s reelection humiliated Netanyahu, who openly supported Mitt Romney; he suffered a second defeat when the Palestinian Authority secured an observer Palestinian state at the UNGA. It was also a slap in the face for Netanyahu when much of the European community overwhelmingly voted in support of the Palestinians’ UN bid while the rest abstained, sending an ominous signal to Israel signifying where the EU stands in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His string of defeats continued with the flare-up in Gaza, from which Hamas emerged with a stunning political victory.

With uncommon audacity, PM Netanyahu openly supported Mitt Romney; blatant vocalizations concerning U.S. political affairs in general and on elections in particular are uncharacteristic of foreign leaders, let alone Israeli PMs who must demonstrate careful sensitivity. By openly challenging a popular sitting President of the United States, a nation on whom Israel depends for military, political, and economic support and powerful affinity, Netanyahu demonstrated a lack of political savvy. He also acted contrary to Israeli public opinion, which considers US-Israeli bilateral relations of critical importance to Israel’s national security. Obama’s victory was explicitly and directly translated into Netanyahu’s defeat, forcing him to rush to rectify his self-defeating miscalculation by being the first to congratulate Obama upon the President’s victory. As a result of this brash behavior, Netanyahu lost clout with Obama; one obvious repercussion may be that President Obama takes a much harder stance on Netanyahu’s policies. It remains to be seen how much Israel will suffer from Netanyahu’s mistake.

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The Israeli government’s failed attempt to prevent the Palestinian Authority from elevating their status at the UN to a non-member observer state represents another colossal defeat for Netanyahu. Although the Palestinian victory will not have an immediate effect on the reality of the Palestinian people, it has already introduced a new psychological dimension to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with serious practical repercussions for the future. The position of the PA will never return to the status quo ante; nearly the whole world views Palestine as an “occupied state” rather than as occupied through a land dispute. This real and symbolic victory immediately earned the Palestinians international legitimacy as a state, which they never before enjoyed.

Israel cannot afford with impunity to ignore this enormous change in circumstances. New limits to the defiance of the will of the international community, with heavier political and economic consequences for noncompliance, will be set for the Jewish State. Regardless of whether or not we see a resumption of peace negotiations or substantial progress therein, the PA has other options to resort to in furthering Israel’s isolation. With the momentum of its UN victory at its back, the PA can punish Israel by turning to the International Criminal Court, charging Israel with human rights violations and illegal expropriations of occupied land.

In losing on the diplomatic front, Israel must also learn the difficult lesson that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can never be resolved by its renowned military prowess. Israel has supreme military power and projection in the Middle East with more than a thousand assorted jet fighters, three times that number in tanks, and precision short, medium and long-range missiles; it is considered the fourth largest nuclear power with a standing army of over 180,000 troops. While formidable military prowess can defend against invasion and even wipe out most any country or combinations of countries, it cannot practically defeat even a small group of terrorists, perhaps numbering 15,000 or less, possessing primitive rockets with a maximum range of fifty miles.

If the Cast Lead incursion into Gaza in 2008/09, devastating the strip, was not instructive enough, Hamas emerged more determined and far better equipped four years later. During the latest flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas, the sirens sounded, alerting the public of incoming rocket fire; yet the country with awesome military power witnessed thousands of its civilians cowering in fear and dashing toward the nearest shelter for cover. The Israelis were no less terrified or vulnerable than the Palestinians in Gaza, who too were running for cover in the face of bombing that rained havoc on much of their government’s infrastructure.

After the firing of rockets and bombs were silent, Israel was internationally rebuked while Hamas was rewarded with visits of nine Arab foreign ministers, along with the Turkish counterpart. Israel was then pressured to accept a ceasefire jointly brokered by the U.S. and Egypt, which included considerable concessions in easing the blockade on Gaza such as allowing building materials to enter the territory, expanding the range of nautical miles for fishing, permitting farmers to work closer to the border with Israel, and gradually easing restrictions on imports and exports. For Hamas, it was a watershed moment; the group scored an enormous political victory, allowing political guru Khaled Meshaal to return to Gaza after decades in exile. Upon his arrival, he was received by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, putting Hamas back in the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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The loss of support from the European Union was particularly stinging, especially after Israel launched a diplomatic offensive in the hope of securing several crucial “No” votes against the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid.  These efforts failed miserably, with only the Czech Republic having voted against, major countries such as France, Spain and Italy voted in favor, while much of the EU chose to abstain. Although the resolution would have passed with or without the EU, the fact that Europe took such a position, including by staunch supporters of Israel like Germany, suggests that Israel may be losing the last vestiges of EU support, increasing its international isolation, and becoming more vulnerable to political pressure from the West than at any other time in the past.

Prime Minister Netanyahu may well form the next Israeli government; yet the Netanyahu of 2013 will not enjoy the same political sway he commanded in 2009. In his second consecutive term (third overall), he will face an alienated international community baffled by his general behavior, his defunct policies in relation to the conflict with the Palestinians, and Israel’s utter defiance of the international community and its strong opposition to the settlement program. The symbolic decision to build in the “E1” area between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, regardless of if and when it comes to fruition, and to withhold taxes from the Palestinian Authority has only increased the international community’s bewilderment over Netanyahu’s actual vision of Israel’s future.

Over the past four years, Netanyahu has sought to convey to the world that he is the ultimate defender of the Jewish people, standing alone in a hostile region bent on Israel’s destruction. The facts on the ground suggest a different reality. Through Netanyahu’s tenures as PM, Israel only rambled down the path of international isolation, reaching the low point where even its most strident allies are now questioning Israel’s sincerity in the search for peace with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors. While the Palestinians (especially Hamas) have done their share in contributing to the impasse, Netanyahu’s settlements policy and the continuing occupation have drastically shifted the sympathy of the international community toward the Palestinians. Israel stands accused of being the culprit behind the dangerously escalating conflict.

Every thoughtful, sincere, and concerned Israeli, and those who genuinely care about Israel’s future, might carefully contemplate Netanyahu’s track record. What has he accomplished in the past four years? Is Israel better off today than it was four years ago? Where will Israel be in the peace process and in the eyes of the world if Netanyahu leads the country for four more years?

This article originally appeared in the Times of Israel.

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