Why Israel ignores global criticism of Gaza flotilla raid

Israel's growing isolation – including the global outcry over the May 31 Gaza flotilla raid – strengthens a pessimistic world view, say analysts. Israelis see international criticism as hyperbole linked to centuries of anti-Jewish persecution – and something that can be ignored.

Jonathan Shaul/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during a financial conference in Tel Aviv Wednesday. Netanyahu said today he was willing to testify in an inquiry Israel intends to hold into its deadly raid on a Gaza flotilla bound for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

Five decades ago, while debating an offensive against Gaza militants, Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, is said to have discounted United Nations intervention with a now famous Hebrew quip: "oom shmoom."

Rough translation: "UN is nothing."

In the face of an international uproar over the May 31 Israeli commando raid of a Gaza aid flotilla that left nine Turks dead, a similar disdain for the global community has resurfaced here.

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's complaint of an "international offensive of hypocrisy" against Israel has been echoed by political rivals and many ordinary Israelis.

"If it wasn't this ship, tomorrow it would be something else," says Dror Epstein, a Tel Aviv lawyer. "It doesn't matter what we do."

Indeed, Israel's recent growing isolation is strengthening the belief that international criticism is mostly hyperbole linked to centuries of anti-Jewish persecution – and something that can be discounted. Though it is unclear how prevalent the belief is among decision makers, analysts note that a feeling of isolation could boost support for provocative and unilateral policies.

"When the world confuses a jihadist lynch mob for peace activists, Israelis nod their head and say, 'We recognize this as a Jewish moment,' " says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research and education facility in Jerusalem.

"Almost every Israeli, regardless of the way they feel about the operation, knows that this [flotilla raid] is not a moral failing of Israel," says Mr. Klein Halevi. "And yet Israelis see the world entering a spasm of moral outrage that we don't see being expressed over Darfur." He adds that Israelis angrily reject world opinion as inherently biased.

Not enough force used?

In a poll of Israeli Jews after the flotilla raid, 61 percent said Israel should not adjust its tactics to curry favor with the international community, according to Princeton, N.J.-based Pechter Middle East Polls. Eighty-five percent of the 500 polled said that Israel either did not use enough force or used the right amount of force.

Some 56 percent said that Israel should resist calls for an international investigation of the raid.

In contrast, a Jerusalem Report poll four months ago found Israelis evenly split over the question of whether the response to international isolation should be to renew negotiations with the Palestinians.

Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, says that in the recent past, the prospect of international isolation prompted former Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to make concessions to the Palestinians.

The same pressure is less likely to influence cabinet ministers in the current government, such as conservative Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, he adds.
"Their approach is: 'No matter what we do the world will hate us,' " he says. "So far, I see the Israeli siege mentality affecting the government."

The sense that Israel faces international critics bent on undermining its legitimacy is more than a conservative perspective. It spans Israel's left-right political divide.

"It is a sentiment that exists today more than in the past, because the trend is de-legitimizing Israel and isolating Israel internationally," says Yossi Alpher, co-editor of Bitterlemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian opinion forum.

"Where it becomes dangerous is when decisions are made and when it obscures the fixable causes of this delegitimization campaign. There are causes which are treatable and there are causes which are not," he says.

Israel still needs the US

Still, the "deck stacked against us" view is offset by a recognition among policy makers that Israel needs the international community, particularly the US and Europe to solve many of its foreign challenges.

In contrast to Israel's solo decision in 1981 to bomb an Iraqi nuclear reactor, Israel currently portrays Iran's nuclear ambitions as a problem for world powers.

The recognition today that the Jewish state can't embark on pre-emptive wars and occupy foreign territory to silence militants on its borders has prompted Israeli governments to accept UN forces to maintain stability in Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon, Mr. Alpher says. "We have to work with the world," says Alpher. "We don't have [other] solutions because we don't want to reoccupy."

Israel was more isolated in the 1970s, when it lacked diplomatic relations with key countries such as Egypt, China, and India, says Ephraim Inbar, the head of the Begin Sadat Center at Bar Ilan University and the author of a study of "outcast" nations.

The relative isolation is what prompted Israel to order a unilateral strike on an Iraq, and a 1976 raid in Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue a hijacked plane. "Jewish history is conducive to this reluctant acceptance that we are not liked," he says. That said, Inbar says that Israel's foreign policy is characterized by realpolitik. "We understand the importance of the US and the relative unimportance of UN resolution."

The Israeli response to the global outcry over the flotilla raid may also be shaped by US public opinion. A Ramussen poll shows that 49 percent of likely US voters blamed the flotilla clash on pro-Palestinian activists. Only 19 percent blamed it on Israel.

History of UN resentment

Israeli resentment is most acute toward the United Nations. The UN Human Rights Council has already commissioned an inquiry into the flotilla violence. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier this week balked at an offer by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to form an international committee to investigate the raid. Instead, Netanyahu is reportedly coordinating the establishment of an Israeli commission of inquiry with the US.

"We will be prepared to appear and give all the facts," Netanyahu said in a speech Wednesday. He said that he would be willing to testify, as would Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli military's chief of staff.

Last year, a UN Human Rights inquiry headed by South African Judge Richard Goldstone accused Israel of war crimes during its Gaza offensive, which left about 1,400 Palestinians dead. Israel's government sees the Goldstone report as an effort to limit its ability to fight militant groups on its borders.

"There has been a structural problem in the UN for many years which leads to situations where Israel is put in the chair of the accused for alleged crimes which it never committed, while countries which are involved in massive human rights abuses are never cited," says Dore Gold, a Israeli UN Ambassador during Netanyahu's first term in office

"I don't think one has to be exasperated about what the international community says. Israel has to make its case," he says.

Israel made its greatest strides toward breaking its isolation during the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians in the 1990s – a period in which Israel established diplomatic ties with dozens of countries. It was also a period in which the Jewish state was willing to take the greatest risks for a peace, argues Klein Halevi.

"This idea either that we don't care about being pariahs or we revel in it is a misreading of the Israeli psyche… it goes against a key Zionist motif which is restoring the Jewish people to the community of nations," he says.

"The more Israelis sense they are being unfairly judged, and being held to a standard no country is being held to, the more Israelis freeze up."

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IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

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