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Shrill wind from Israel: Does it risk alienating its allies?

Explaining Motives

Even as Israel loudly tangles with Sweden, the UN, and the US envoy, Netanyahu is quietly trying to 'muddle through' amid signs of eroding US diplomatic cover.

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    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a joint statement with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras in Jerusalem, in this January 27, 2016 file picture.
    Amir Cohen/Reuters
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The acrimony started with Sweden’s foreign minister, continued with the US ambassador, and reached a crescendo with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Israel has been getting an earful in public recently from its friends over its policies toward Palestinians, and the comeback from the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu has often been shrill.

Sweden’s Margot Wallstrom is now unwelcome in Israel for criticizing the police killings of Palestinian knife assailants. Remarks by Dan Shapiro, the US envoy, were called “unacceptable and incorrect” for suggesting that a double standard exists in West Bank law enforcement.

And Mr. Ban – despite his good ties with Israel – was assailed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel’s ambassador to the UN as fanning terrorism for warning that Palestinian “resistance” would not subside absent statehood.

Israel’s responses demonstrate the Netanyahu government's style of blunt pushback against all critics of its military occupation of Palestinian territories. They also reflect its retreat to a diplomatic bunker amid a vacuum in peace negotiations and the absence of any new diplomatic initiative of their own regarding the Palestinians.

The bunker could be costly. Though the stridency may play well at home, the spats risk eroding Israel’s ability to fend off potential initiatives in Europe and at the UN aimed at supporting Palestinian statehood. And this at a time that the United States is signaling it is less inclined to come to Israel’s diplomatic rescue.

“There’s an accumulation of [diplomatic] incidents in which the one common thing is growing international criticism of certain phenomena in Israeli behavior in the occupied territories,” says Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union. “What is new is the tone coming from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responding more forcefully to the accusations.”

Amir Tibon, diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Walla! News, says that while UN treatment of Israel overall is biased, Secretary Ban himself has sided with Israel against Hamas and Iran.

“It's more than legitimate to criticize his organization’s attitude toward Israel,” he says, “but turning him personally into an enemy is a mistake that will backfire.”

Warnings from US

Behind the fiery rhetoric, however, analysts say Netanyahu is quietly tempering his moves in order to preserve ties with allies like the US who can help an isolated Israel fend off new initiatives on behalf of Palestinian statehood.

“Because ultimately he wants to muddle through, what we are seeing from a policy perspective is an avoidance of certain steps because they cross the lines of international allies,” says Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “These confrontations make it more difficult for Netanyahu to deflect more imminent [diplomatic] risks.”

Last week, France called for an international conference to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – a format Israel has always resisted for fear such a conference would impose a deal. The proposal has also stirred concern that France will try to push a series of peace parameters as a resolution at the UN Security Council.

Separately, after the European Union decided to label products from Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, there is concern in Israel that the Europeans will add new sanctions against Israeli settlers and businesses with operations across the Green Line.

“Israelis feel that they are becoming a target for European policies and are unfairly treated. This brings about a more radical reaction from the Israeli side,” says Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. “The way that Israel is going about to minimize the damage is to try to balance European initiatives by maintaining a close relationship with the US.”

Indeed, US officials have been making the case in public and private that they are less able to shield Israel from such initiatives when there is no peace process and when it appears that prospects for a two-state solution are growing dim. The fact that the US made no immediate public attempt to shut down the new French proposal is evidence of the wavering US diplomatic cover even as defense ties remain strong, says one Western diplomat.

Compensation by Netanyahu

Netanyahu has been trying to repair ties with the Obama administration, agreeing late last year to a truce on the much-disputed Iran nuclear deal. 

Some say the prime minister has even observed a quiet slowdown in initiating new building in the West Bank despite pressure from pro-settler constituents. A recent announcement of 150 new houses was the first such announcement in more than a year, according to Dror Etkes, a long time monitor of settlement policy. Israeli housing starts dropped in the West Bank by 5 percent in 2015.

And when Ambassador Shapiro’s criticism made headlines in Israel and the US because it was interpreted as drawing a comparison between Israel’s military occupation and apartheid South Africa, Netanyahu followed up a blunt retort with a one-on-one meeting with Shapiro to clear the air. No escalation ensued.

“I’m proud of my relations with the prime minister,” Shapiro said in a radio interview Thursday. “I want to be a constructive channel that advances cooperation between us in security, economics, and diplomacy – whether we disagree or not.”

The need to rally allies at a time of diplomatic uncertainty might also explain the timing of Netanyahu’s decision to approve the recent compromise to make room at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for non-Orthodox Jewish prayer.

Balancing act is criticized

With support from liberal US Jews flagging over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and settlements, the adjustment reduces long felt alienation among those groups by giving non-Orthodox denominations a chance for the first time to worship as they please. Though the decision annoyed many religious traditionalists in Netanyahu’s cabinet, the move was seen by one Western diplomat as shoring up support among a community seen as strategic for lobbying the US government.

The mix of diplomatic flare-ups and tactical maneuvers to minimize international fallout has led critics both inside and outside of the government to call it passive and strategically adrift.

But when it comes to solving the conflict with the Palestinians, Mr. Zalzberg says, the Israeli leader prefers the status quo to any radical change of Israeli policy at this point.

“Netanyahu is committed to a policy that generates tension internationally,” he says. “He is looking for ways to minimize the tension, but he’s not changing the policy.

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