Boycotts and browbeating of Israel: What’s changed since the last Gaza war?

In contrast to the quieter international reaction after the last Gaza war in 2008-2009, more countries are suspending diplomatic ties, enacting arms embargoes, and openly criticizing Israel.

By , Staff Writer

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    People display banners, reading on left, ''Gaza We Are All'', and ''Peace'', bottom right, during a protest against Israel's offensive on Gaza, in Pamplona, Northern Spain, Aug. 6, 2014. On Monday, Spain announced a 'temporary halt' to arms sales to Israel.
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As Israel ends its second ground incursion and fifth bombing offensive of the Gaza Strip in six years, some Americans and much of the world sound more critical of Operation Protective Edge than of previous military campaigns.

During the current war, more countries have rescinded diplomatic ties and are either threatening or imposing arms embargoes than during Israel's earlier Operation Cast Lead in winter 2009. Adding fuel to the fire is that in the last war, the ongoing peace process may have deflected international pressure on Israel. This time around, the Israeli government is no longer negotiating with the Palestinian Authority.

On Monday, Spain imposed an arms embargo and the United Kingdom said it would review all of its multi-billion pound military contracts. The French president has called the situation in Gaza a “massacre,” while this week, the US State Department condemned an Israeli bombing on a school as “appalling.”

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And last week, five Latin American nations – Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Peru and El Salvador – withdrew their ambassadors from Tel Aviv. Other countries suspended free-trade talks and Bolivia canceled a visa-exemption that was popular with Israeli backpackers.

Even in the United States, where the response is traditionally more pro-Israel than abroad, younger Americans are less supportive of the country than policymakers in Washington. By a two-to-one margin, the "millennial" generation blame Israel more than the Palestinian militant group Hamas for the violence, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research center in mid-July. 

Most older Americans continue to sympathize with Israel’s fight against Hamas, which is recognized as a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union. Strong support was evident in a unanimous Senate vote last week to spend $225 million to replenish Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.

Unlike the US, many countries are moving in the opposite direction and shying away from importing or exporting military equipment with Israel.

In particular, the withdrawal of Brazil’s ambassador now threatens key arms sales as the biggest customers of Israel's arms industry – the sixth largest in the world – are the US, India, and Brazil, according to Shir Hever, a leftist Israeli economist.

Britain is also a prominent military trading partner and its announced "review" could imperil government-approved exports to Israel worth more than $13.1 billion, according to a report by a parliamentary committee last month. These include the sale of body armor, drone components, and missile parts.

After the 2008-2009 Israeli-Palestinian war, the British government announced a similar review of military export licenses. Also in response to the same war – only Venezuela and Bolivia cut diplomatic ties, with Nicaragua following in 2010.

During the latest conflict, a smaller exporter, Spain, decided to "temporarily halt" its five million-euro annual arms sales to Israel, reported El Pais, after more than 1,800 Palestinian died, most of them civilians killed on questioned legal ground.

According to the statistics sent to Spain’s Congress by the secretary of state for commerce, the sale of Spanish arms to Israel in 2013 included parts for pistols that were to be exported to the US, components for a missile that were to be used by the army, all-terrain vehicles, grenade fuses, mortar systems and a prototype aiming system," reported El Pais.

An Israeli embassy spokesperson declined to comment on news of the Spanish and British arms embargoes. In terms of the recalled ambassadors, the Israeli foreign ministry expressed “disappointment” in the five countries. “[The countries should] assist Israel in its efforts to defend innocent civilians and instate a durable ceasefire with the demilitarization of Gaza,” it said in a statement.

The diplomatic fracas cuts close to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s efforts to improve relations with South America. In February, Israel became an observer in the Pacific Alliance, reported The Jerusalem Post. That status gave Israel the ability to participate and attend the Alliance's conferences, a change that could help facilitate business ties with Latin America.

But the latest military operation in Gaza may undermine those efforts.

“It’s a further demonstration of Israel’s tendency to isolate itself from the world,” Mr. Hever says, arguing that “the Israeli public is not so keen on isolation, and many Israelis are leaving the country, or moving their investments abroad.”

In response to the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories, a number of countries have downgraded ties with Jerusalem in the past six years due to growing awareness of international humanitarian law, argues Charles Shamas, a humanitarian law specialist with the Ramallah-based NGO, Mattin Group. Perceptions of legality are contagious and could affect Israel, he adds.

“When others apply law and say we have to limit our own political discretion, it begins to set up a chain reaction,” says Mr. Shamas. “[They] promote adaptations in Israel’s own political calculus as to what’s acceptable and what consequences there are.”

After the 2008-2009 war, Israel was still trying to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah over a two-state solution. But since Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace proposal failed this spring, many allies – most of who support Israel's right to self-defense— blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, becoming more critical.

“The facts on the ground are beginning to make a two-state solution impossible,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said last week, referring to Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank, territory considered by the international community as part of a future Palestinian state. Two years ago, Mr. Cameron said that “time was running out” for a two-state solution.

Another factor augmenting pressure on Israel this time around, as opposed to six years ago, could be changing public opinion, as Europeans are increasingly critical of Israel. A number of large-scale protests have taken place across the EU in recent weeks, many calling for consumers to boycott the country.

While most governments and businesses have resisted the boycott calls, in April 17 European countries cautioned companies from trading with Israeli companies based in the occupied territories. As The Economist reports:

Others have disinvested from Israeli firms or institutions with settlement-related assets. A Dutch pension-fund manager, PGGM, and Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, have sold stakes in Israeli banks that finance settlement construction. The Netherlands’ largest public water-supplier, Vitens, cut ties to Israel’s water company, Mekorot, which takes water from the West Bank and then sells it back to Palestinians.

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