Virtually no one disputes the fact that the Netanyahu government has become the most isolated in Israel’s history. Whether one supports or opposes Bibi’s policies, and whether or not one thinks the global reaction either worthwhile or unavoidable, the question of how to raise Israel’s standing in the world is one that people grapple with
across the political spectrum, albeit in different ways.
Today, Israel finds itself with a new opportunity in North Africa, and a renewed relationship with a Mediterranean state in Europe. Only time will tell if Israel will make something of this chance, and it will probably depend even more on Benjamin Netanyahu’s successors than it does on Bibi itself.
The newly-independent South Sudan is building a relationship with Israel. With few friends in the region, that’s something Israel desperately needs.
This is not lost on the Israeli government, and it represents a return on years of investment. While neither side ever admitted it, it is a widely held belief that Israel has been helping to arm the Sudan People’s Liberation Army for years, and the issue of Sudan has been a cause célèbre for the organized Jewish diaspora community for years.
On top of the belief that Israel helped South Sudan gain its independence, Israel also represents, to many South Sudanese, the country that refugees saw as their… refuge. While many progressive Israelis have rightly criticized the treatment Sudanese refugees have gotten in Israel, as Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner points out, “…however grudging or ungenerous the state’s reception of these people had been, Israel had treated them a hundred times better than Egypt had, and a trillion times better than Sudan had.”
All of this is a sound basis for an Israeli-South Sudan friendship, assuming the fledgling state survives and grows into stability.
But long-term, Israel will face the same problems it is facing all over the world.
Right now, South Sudan sees Israel as the country that helped it fight and at least allowed some of its refugees into the country. But at some point, their own history, to which of course, the Israeli occupation of Palestinians cannot and should not be compared, will call into question their support for a country holding millions of people without rights and basic freedoms due to their own historical, ethnic conflict.
On the European side, there is Israel’s revised relationship with Greece.
When the Greek government stepped in to stop the second Gaza flotilla, it came as something of a surprise, but it actually represented the fruits of a year of labor.
This was Netanyahu’s baby. It’s worth noting that he took the task of building a relationship with Greece on personally. It’s a sign of the dysfunctional nature of his government that such diplomacy must be carried on by the Prime Minister’s office, as the Foreign Ministry has made it abundantly clear it is much better at burning bridges than building them.
Netanyahu was a powerful advocate with the International Monetary Fund, pushing for the relief plan that Greece accepted during the flotilla controversy, which sparked major riots in the country. Israel also supplied tear gas to help the Greeks in quelling those riots.
Again, this is a short-term gain with a dubious future. From the Greek side, the occupation is very unpopular there, as it is in most of Europe. The current government is also unpopular, especially now, and the current unrest will not reflect well on Israel for many Greeks.
From the Israeli side, enhancing a friendship with any European country is a plus these days, and turning to Greece was intended to provide Israel with an alternative to Turkey. But Israel knows very well that a relationship with Turkey is much more important than one with Greece, and will be prepared if that relationship warms to take advantage of that. So this is a coin whose value will vary depending on regional politics even in the near future.
In the cases of both South Sudan and Greece, Netanyahu has made significant short-term gains. But in the long run, the overarching problem, the occupation, is not going away and will eventually complicate these relationships as much as it does so many others for Israel.
It seems likely that the Netanyahu government is going to take the wrong lesson from these developments. Specifically, they will conclude that it shows that Israel can revise and create new relationships with other states, and, along with the unswerving support of the United States, and ongoing warm relations with Canada, Germany and a few other countries, is not really heading toward global pariah status.
What it really suggests is that Israel still has an opportunity to end the occupation, allow for a real, viable, secure and self-respecting Palestinian state to emerge, and safeguard its own security while allowing a new Palestine to be secure as well. Indeed, these developments should be incentive toward that, and a wise and forward-looking leader would realize that such a thing is worth giving up the settlements, including those in blocs such as Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim, that are situated in such a way as to make a secure and viable Palestinian state impossible.
I’m not convinced that any Israeli party to the right of Meretz would be willing to make the necessary compromises to secure Israel’s future. But we’ve seen more than enough evidence in the past two years to know that this government is not.
While I’m not sure that Israel has not already killed the two-state solution, it is hard to argue that both Israel and the Palestinians are running out of time to make it happen—if that’s what they want.
And that’s a shame. Israel has some new friends, and still could repair much of its image in the world. But until it determines to end the occupation and proves that determination by stopping all settlement activity, taking down the outposts it has committed to eliminating rather than maneuvering in shady ways to “legalize” them, its standing in the world will continue to deteriorate, and the new friendships it builds will always be tenuous.