Behind Israel's siege mentality

A string of diplomatic and physical attacks this month leaves Israelis feeling alone.

Israel's first prime minister had little time for world opinion, at one point dismissing the United Nations by in Hebrew as 'nothing' "Um shmum" David Ben-Gurion once said, "the important thing is not what the world says, but what we do."

In the 1990s, the Oslo peace process offered Israel a break from that defiant posture, engendering goodwill for the country and its leaders. But three years of conflict with the Palestinians have left Israelis feeling more isolated than ever.

From grassroots to government, Israelis say that apart from the US, the world condemns them even as they defend themselves. Analysts say this sense of victimization prompts greater defiance of world opinion, deepens Israel's sense of alienation, and could prolong conflict here.

"Many people feel that no matter what Israel will do, a large part of the world will turn on her," says Judith Baumel, a historian at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "Furthermore, the feeling of 'no matter what we do' is definitely becoming public policy. The government feels as if the world is against Israel and the only country that matters is the United States. Hence, as long as you don't offend the American administration, you can do what you want in terms of self defense."

Israelis discussing this sense of alienation point to:

• Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's descriptions this month of Jews as "creatures" who "rule the world" as examples of rising anti-Semitism;

• Two October votes at the UN censuring Israel for its security barrier, which it considers a defensive measure;

• Anti-Israel discrimination, especially at universities;

• A gap between Israeli and international perspectives on the conflict.

Criticism of the security barrier strikes a particular chord. A combination of obstacles that will eventually run 210 miles, the barrier is meant to prevent West Bank suicide bombers from entering Israel. It raises international concern because it deviates from the 1948 Green Line that separates the West Bank and Israel proper, plunging into Palestinian territory to such an extent that it causes humanitarian and economic hardship and could make a future peace deal more difficult.

While critics see the barrier as an elaborate land grab, for trauma-scarred Israelis it is simply a safety measure and there is massive support for the project. In this environment, barrier criticism sounds like the worst kind of political hypocrisy to Israelis.

"People have the tendency to link opposition to the fence to a growing delegitimization of Israel or a legitimization of terrorism," says Shmuel Bar, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzilya. He makes a comparison commonly heard here, citing the lack of international outcry about the wall dividing Protestants and Catholics in Belfast, Ireland.

"Israelis have the feeling that the world thinks Palestinians have an inalienable right to commit acts of terror against us and by building a fence we deny them that right," says Dr. Bar.

The UN presented two resolutions to condemn the barrier this month. The US vetoed one. Both angered Israelis. "Opposition to the fence increases a bunker mentality and encourages much harsher reaction in response - the gloves are off," says Bar. "If even protective measures aren't acceptable to the world, then what does it matter?"

Indeed, Sharon told visiting EU parliamentarians this week that barrier construction would go forward and appealed for their support "in international fora, where attempts are being made to isolate Israel."

The disconnect between international and Israeli perspectives on the conflict is a major reason for the growing Israeli alienation, says Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Most Israeli's don't see the settlements or the occupation as major causes of terrorist attacks while much of the world does, says Prof. Ezrahi. He argues that the government reinforces this perception gap by blaming all terrorism on what it says is Islamic hatred of Jews and the West. "You never hear that roadblocks, economic suffering, or the separation wall are factors that might cause terror," Ezrahi says. "Consequently, Israelis, when they feel the UN or the world is not sympathetic, tend to put it down to anti-Semitism and dismiss it. Definitely people of this government tend to ascribe legitimate criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism."

Over the years of this conflict, though, anti-Semitism has risen, leaving Jews in Israel and abroad anxious and uncomfortable. Just this month, Malaysian Prime Minister told a domestic audience that Europe is "under the thumb of the Jews."

On an individual level, Israelis cite divestment drives at US colleges and discrimination at European universities. This month, a professor at England's Oxford University resigned after refusing to accept an Israeli student in his lab. Beyond the confines of academia, hate crimes are up, as are anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

"Is there any other country in the world where the countries surrounding it air prime time TV series talking about how that first country wants to take over the world and destroy it?" asks Ms. Baumel of Bar Ilan University. She refers to a Syrian-made series now being broadcast across the Middle East on a Hizbullah satellite channel.

Some analysts say the situation has improved lately, perhaps because the terrorist Sept. 11 attacks on the US engendered greater sympathy for Israel.

"There is less demonization of Israel than at the beginning of the intifada when all the photos were of Israeli soldiers shooting at Palestinian children," says Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University. "We've clawed back some of that ground."

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