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5 Reasons Israel Is Losing the Public Relations Battle

There are some very good reasons -- none of them anti-Semitic -- why Israel is sinking in the perception of the outside world.
 
 
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Right-wing Israeli officials are concerned about attempts to "delegitimize" Israel, and fund former officials and intellectuals to attempt to combat this perceived trend. But it seems obvious that Israel is gradually sinking in the perception of the outside world, and there are concrete reasons for this change. Most of them derive from the train wreck that is Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Israeli blockade on the civilians of the Gaza Strip. Others derive from the hawkishness of the Likud government and its Kadima predecessor. 

They have nothing to do with anti-Israel sentiments or hatred of Jews. No one is condemning the municipality of Haifa or the administration of Tel Aviv. The criticisms are criticisms of aggressive expansionism and a trigger-happy government. The criticisms are getting louder and more mainstream, with potentially deleterious effects on Israel’s economy as time goes on.

1. Giving the finger to any ‘peace process'

Israeli land theft in the Palestinian West Bank has reached epic proportions under PM Binyamin Netanyahu, with settlement populations surging 18%. The right-wing in Israel is so isolated from the real world that they have begun claiming that the Palestinian territories are not even occupied. They claim that the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist forces them to occupy Palestine (in fact, the PLO recognized Israel as part of the Oslo accords, after which the Israelis screwed the Palestinians over royally).

They distort history and say the most ridiculous things, such as that the League of Nations Mandate awarded to Britain in the 1920s allows them now to steal Palestinian land and water without recompensing them. The brazenness and zombie-like relentlessness of this march onto other people’s land has provoked an increasingly influential international boycott movement, targeting the "settler-industrial complex" that preys on the hapless Palestinians under Israel’s control. That is why the Church of England recently endorsed a World Council of Churches-inspired program that brings people to the Occupied Territories to see for themselves what Occupation is doing to the stateless and rights-less Palestinians. The resolution was a major defeat for the Likud, right-wing branches of Zionism. 

Likewise, the US Presbyterian Church very nearly adopted a resolution to disinvest from companies perceived as enabling the Israeli land grab in the West Bank. As it was, they urged positive investment to help the Palestinian victims of Israeli injustice. These votes are straws in the wind. As Israel moves formally to incorporate the West Bank into itself, it must offer citizenship to the Palestinians on the land it covets, or else it would perpetuate the new apartheid.

2. Hypocrisy

Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu keeps threatening to launch a war on Iran and urging my country to sacrifice its young men, to stop Iran from continuing to enrich uranium. (Iran says the enrichment is for peaceful energy purposes and there is no good evidence to the contrary.)

Israel itself not only enriched uranium, it made 400 nuclear bombs. There are allegations by an Israeli and American journalist that Israel’s Mossad spy agency has murdered a series of Iranian scientists. (If Iran were alleged to have done something similar at Dimona in Israel, all hell would have broken loose.)

And, it now turns out that Binyamin Netanyahu was involved in a spy ring that smuggled nuclear triggers out of the United States to Israel. Israel is alleged routinely to threaten to use its nuclear weapons if it doesn’t get its way, deploying a sort of nuclear blackmail. It is very hard to see why Iran’s population should be reduced to a fourth-world standard of living by international sanctions for doing much, much less than Israel has done, or why Netanyahu should be able to smuggle US high-tech out of this country with impunity.

3. Disregard for the rule of law

The Israeli practice of kidnapping Palestinians at will and holding them indefinitely without trial is abhorrent to all civilized persons. (They call it administrative detention in Tel Aviv.) If a Palestinian is suspected of having actually committed a crime, then it should be possible to present evidence for it and to try the person.

Israel took the Palestinian soccer player Mahmoud Sarsak into custody three years ago, and only just released him under severe international pressure. The Israelis say he is an Islamic Jihad terrorist, but clearly have no good evidence for this charge or they would have tried him. Instead, they just put him away, apparently forever. He went on a hunger strike that endangered his life, and provoked widespread protests from the soccer playing lobby. But Sarsak’s plight also elicited a condemnation from the Austrian senate (Bundesrat). Israeli complaints that criticizing "administrative detention" is "anti-Semitic" and that after all Syria is doing something much worse are absolutely painful to hear. It is playground ethics: "he hit me first," "you just don’t like me," "why punish me when other kids have done really bad things?"

The Israelis would benefit from a reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the US Bill of Rights on issues such as a fair and speedy trial for everyone arrested, and from an acquaintance with the basic international law of Occupations, which rules out most of their practices toward the Palestinians. Note that when the Bush administration attempted to make Guantanamo a legal black hole, the US Supreme Court struck it down.

4. Punitive policies toward non-combatants

The Israeli blockade on the civilian population of Gaza is evil, creepy and illegal in international law. That is why the international community is pushing back. For instance, UNESCO is establishing a science chair at a university in Gaza. Israel is the occupying authority in Gaza, and is therefore bound by the Geneva Convention of 1949 on the treatment of its subjects. Some 40% of Palestinian families there are refugees from what is now Israel, expelled by militant members of the Yishuv in 1948, and many of them still live in camps. The blockade has reduced some 56% of them to food insecurity.

Israel surrounds the Strip, and destroyed its airport and seaport, preventing it from exporting most of what it makes and produces, and limiting imports. The little territory of 1.6 million Palestinians suffers severe health as well as mental health damage from these Israeli policies. No Israeli official can explain what future the residents of Gaza might have that is not a kind of Israel-imposed hell. (And no, they aren’t generic "Arabs" who will melt into the great sea of other "Arabs" as the more racist Israelis might hope.)

Israeli relations with Turkey, long excellent, have been deeply harmed by the blockade and Israel’s attack on a civilian Turkish aid ship that tried to get supplies to the non-combatant population there. Israel refuses to apologize for killing nine aid workers, including an American citizen.

5. Violations of international law

Israel’s occupation forces it into a whole range of illegal and reprehensible behaviors. This is nothing to do with Jews or Israel, it is to do with occupations. The Israelis have been arresting minors, sentencing them to harsh terms and fines, and treating them much differently than they would Jewish minors guilty of the same offenses. The British Foreign Office has just condemned these practices.

Israeli policies are no more off limits to criticism than are Argentinian or Indonesian ones, despite what the country’s remarkably thin-skinned and intolerant partisans often allege. And, when the chorus of criticism is coming from Anglicans, Presbyterians, the UK Foreign Office, the Austrian Senate, and UNESCO, that is a pretty wide set of world institutions not easily pigeon-holed as mere bigots. Maybe it is time for the Israeli government to reconsider the self-destructive course it is on, which likely will lead to the end of the state some decades hence, as Israeli President Shimon Peres is frantically warning.

Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and maintains the blog Informed Comment.
 
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