In international politics, image counts. A country’s reputation, the aura it projects, the esteem in which its leaders are held – these are as important as its armed services in providing protection for its citizens. Most politicians know that ‘soft power’, skilfully used, can be at least as effective as blood-drenched ‘hard power’.
This is a lesson Israel appears to have forgotten. Its pitiless treatment of the Palestinians, whether under occupation on the West Bank or under siege in Gaza – not to mention its repeated assaults on Lebanon, its 2007 raid on Syria and its relentless sabre-rattling against Iran — have done terrible damage to its image.
The admiration which its early state-building once aroused in many parts of the world has turned into angry impatience, outrage, even contempt.
Few outside Israel itself – and outside the shrinking ranks of its diehard supporters in the United States and Europe – would today be prepared to defend its arrogant militarists, its fanatical land-grabbing settlers, its racist politicians.
Astonishingly, there is no sign that Israel’s political leaders have understood the magnitude of the problem or are doing anything serious to address it. On the contrary, they are busy digging deeper into a hole of their own making.
Turkey’s sudden cancellation this week of a major air force exercise with Israel was a salutary wake-up call. Evidently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan found it necessary to cancel the drill because of the widespread hostility to Israel among Turkey’s population. He has had to take Turkish public opinion into account. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu spelled out the reasons in diplomatic terms: ‘We hope that the situation in Gaza will improve…and that will create a new atmosphere in Turkish-Israeli relations…’
To offend the Turks is no small matter. Israel cannot afford to ignore the warning or sweep it under the carpet. Turkey has for many years been Israel’s main regional strategic partner — indeed its only one since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Losing Turkey could turn out to be the worst setback Israel has suffered for a very long time.
Turkey’s army is the largest in the region; so is its industrial base. Its GDP, at over $1,000bn (in 2008) dwarfs that of the oil producers, whether Arab or Iranian, and is four times larger than Israel’s own. In recent years, Turkey has greatly improved its relations with Iran and with neighbouring Arab states — Syria in particular – and is emerging as the wise ‘big brother’ of the greater Middle East. It has offered to mediate local conflicts and is attempting to spread stability and security all around it.
From the moment Israel started hammering Gaza last December it was clear that its insane war was a grotesque mistake, which would end up fuelling nothing but hate, and might even delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of much of the world. The Goldstone report has now driven a giant nail into the coffin of Israel’s reputation by finding that, in Gaza, there was evidence that Israel ‘committed actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity.’
Instead of agreeing to carry out an independent investigation into these charges, as the UN mission demanded — before the matter was referred to the Security Council for prosecution at the International Criminal Court — Israel launched an all-out attack on Goldstone and his report. It used all its diplomatic clout to get the report discredited as ‘biased’ and its examination deferred.
Not only is Judge Richard Goldstone an eminent international jurist with a towering reputation for integrity and fairness, but he is also a Jew and a self-proclaimed Zionist. He won praise for exposing the crimes of South Africa’s Apartheid regime and for his scrupulous work as chief UN prosecutor in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
So anxious was he to be even-handed that, before accepting to head the Gaza fact-finding mission, he insisted that the mandate be expanded to include Palestinian rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. Indeed, his report found evidence that ‘Palestinian armed groups’ also committed war crimes, as well as possible crimes against humanity.
Israel’s propaganda war on the Goldstone report has proved both wrong-headed and self-defeating. Among its victims is the hapless Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority who, under pressure from both Israel and the U.S., agreed not to press for an immediate examination of the report by the Security Council. Recognising his mistake, he has since tried to back-track, but his leadership has been severely dented.
The result has been to undermine and weaken Palestinian ‘moderates’, such Abbas, whom Israel, one might have supposed, would want to strengthen, and with whom it would seek to negotiate. But does Israel want peace? Does it want to negotiate? Or does it, on the contrary, seek to radicalise the Palestinians so as to avoid serious negotiations until it has seized more territory?
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s extremist foreign minister, has given the game away by declaring that there can be no peace with the Palestinians for several more years. In refusing to freeze settlements or engage in negotiations, what Lieberman and his boss, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, are doing is to challenge not just peace-loving opinion around the world, but – first and foremost — U.S. President Barack Obama as well.
The Israeli right-wing and its neo-conservative supporters in the U.S. have launched a frontal assault on a central goal of Obama’s foreign policy, namely a two-state solution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. To undermine Obama, they have not hesitated to mount a vicious campaign of incitement against him. He is depicted as a Nazi, a Muslim and a Jew-hater. His Nobel Peace Prize has been mocked.
Israel is here venturing on very dangerous ground. So far, Obama has sought to persuade rather than to threaten. In his dealings with both Iran and Israel, he has tried to reach agreement by accommodation. With Iran, he has achieved some progress – breaking a 30-year long stalemate — and no doubt more progress will follow. With Israel, he has met a stone wall.
Israel should reflect. Obama’s patience is not endless. Losing Turkey is one thing. To risk losing America is quite another.