Tahrir Square demonstration - AFP - November 2011
A demonstration in Tahrir Square last week. Photo by AFP
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Last weekend, a group of Europeans, Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Jordanians convened in Europe for discussions regarding the “Arab Spring." The Israelis who participated returned to Israel in a worried state. “Our situation isn't good”, one of them said.

The Arabs who participated in the talks told their Israeli counterparts that hostility toward Israel in the Arab world is reaching new heights. According to them, Israel is seen as part of the “old order” in the Middle East, as well as an ally of deposed Arab dictators, such as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

According to the Arab participants, the ongoing occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, and what is seen as an Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip both serve to strengthen hostilities among the Arab public toward Israel. In the new reality created in the wake of the “Arab Spring," public opinion is much more important than that of the president.

Many meetings of this kind have taken place in the last several months in different European capitals. The messages conveyed have been making their way to the decision-makers in Jerusalem. And while the Israeli participants may not hold official positions, many of them are connected one way or another to Israeli security forces or the foreign ministry and are reporting on the discussions.

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Although the new reality is very clear to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top ministers, the Israeli response to the “Arab Spring” has taken the form of “winter hibernation.” Like a polar bear, Israel retreated into its cave, withdrew into itself and waited until the rage passed. Building security barriers on the border with Egypt and Jordan, enlarging the security budget and abstaining from any gesture toward the Palestinians have been only some of the steps taken by Israel in response to the “Arab Spring”.
In a recent speech to the Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed disdain for the ability of the Arabs to manage a democratic regime. The Arab world “is not moving forward, but backward”, he said. Netanyahu, who receives his ideas regarding the Arab world from Orientalist historian Bernard Lewis, among others, believes that there is an internal contradiction between Islam and Arab culture, and liberal-democratic principles.
Netanyahu and most of his cabinet members believe nothing can be done. That Israel has no way of influencing what happens in the region, and that the latest developments only prove why it cannot rush to an agreement with the Palestinians.

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In the last couple of weeks, with a delay of nearly a year, it seems as if something is beginning to change. The elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco clarified for the Israeli government that Mubarak will not return, and that it must deal with the reality through diplomatic means, and not only by building bunkers.

In Israel there has been talk about the possibility of engaging with the Arab public as well with their new governments, despite the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood. Foreign Ministry director-general Rafael Barak established several working groups to investigate Israel’s options. One group deals with North African states – Tunisia, Libya and Morocco – while another deals with Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

A third working group looks into minorities in those countries, and the possibility of strengthening Israeli engagement with them. After all, the Copts in Egypt and the Kurds in Syria, among others, are worried about their respective fates under new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regimes.

The initial discussions did not create much optimism. The Foreign Ministry estimates that without significant progress in negotiations with the Palestinians, it will be difficult or even impossible to engage the new governments in the Arab world. The goal, according to Foreign Ministry officials, is to try and maintain ties with Egypt and Jordan in order to avoid further deterioration and escalation.

Meanwhile, both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office have strengthened their attempt to get their message across to the public in Arab countries through the internet. The prime minister’s spokesperson to the Arab media Ofir Gendelman has an active Twitter account, tweets intensively on behalf of Netanyahu, and chats with Arab Facebook users on the prime minister’s official page.

Both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office claim that hundreds of curious Arab users engage by asking questions. This is a welcome initiative, albeit slightly anecdotal. In order to create a real change in the Arab world’s view of Israel, and to lessen the hostility toward it, Netanyahu must take real political steps. Tweets do not suffice.

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The American ambassador to Brussels, Howard Gutman, turned into a punching bag last week. Gutman, who is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors, is guilty of daring to assert that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and the confrontation with the Palestinians strengthens anti-Semitism in Europe.

“In the Muslim communities which I visit, there are significant amounts of rage and resentment, and sometimes there are even expressions of violence and fear-mongering against Jews in general as a result of the continuing tensions between Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Arab states in the Middle East," said Gutman. He added that “each rocket launched over the border, and each Israeli retaliation only worsens the problem and hurts the efforts of those in Europe who are struggling against hatred and prejudice.”

Gutman was hit from each direction – Jewish organizations in Europe harshly criticized him and claimed that he was justifying anti-Semitism. American Jewish organizations, which argued that the fact that Gutman is Jewish will give “ammunition” to Israel’s enemy, called on the Obama administration to reprimand him. The Republican presidential candidates called on President Obama to fire him.

Despite the cacophony of American Jews, the Israeli government remained silent. Not one spokesperson went on camera to condemn the American ambassador, and not one minister claimed that this serves as an example of the Obama administration’s hostility toward Israel.

It may be that the reason for this has to do with the fact that the Israeli government itself has an identical evaluation of the situation as the American ambassador. Reports from the Information and Diaspora Ministry, which is in charge of tracking worldwide anti-Semitism, have been pointing to this tendency for the last three years.

A report delivered to the government in January 2010 stated that Operation Cast Lead and the harm done to the Palestinians as a result of the operation, brought about a large wave of anti-Semitism in Europe, especially on the part of Muslim immigrants. A report delivered to the government by Minister Yuli Edelstein in January 2011 said similar things.

“Anti-Semitic activity in 2009 was unprecedented in its strength – especially in the wake of Operation Cast Lead," said the report. “In 2010, there is a clear decrease in this trend, which is ostensibly tied to the fact that during the past year there were no extraordinary events relating to violence and victims of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, and between Israel and the Palestinians. Furthermore, 2010 was characterized much like all years since the second intifada broke out in 2000, with a rather high number of anti-Semitic occurrences, whose number was significantly higher than those reported during the 90s.”

A senior clerk in the Information and Diaspora Ministry was surprised by the storm caused as a result of the American ambassador’s statement. “What’s new?” he stated. “We have been pointing to this phenomenon for quite a while. Without any justification for Israel’s actions in the territories, the fact is that when a confrontation with the Palestinian heats up, anti-Semitism rises in the world.” Abe Foxman and Newt Gingrich - take note.

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Gutman’s words represent a legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies in the territories, and can be seen as a form of “tough love.” Unfortunately, while Jewish American leaders (that were never actually elected) are pushing the Republican leadership to take down the ambassador, a far more serious phenomenon is taking place in their own backyard.

An intensive delegitimization campaign is taking place in cities across the United States – on university campuses, at malls and in front of Israel consulates. The campaign is not aimed at the settlement enterprise, or against the occupation and the humiliation of millions of Palestinians at checkpoints, but rather the campaign is against the very existence of the State of Israel, and promoting a boycott of anything that might even smell Israeli.

One example is the story of “Park Slope Food Co-op,” a supermarket located in Brooklyn, situated in one of the most “Jewish” areas in the United States. Every week, hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists assemble near the entrance, where one can purchase Israeli goods, and call for a general boycott of the store.

Minister of Information and Diaspora Yuli Edelstein, who visited New York last week, was surprised to find out that pro-Israel activists had to declare their own oppositional campaign of “Buy Israeli Goods Week”. The minister came especially in order to express his solidarity and go shopping.

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But the Brooklyn supermarket is only one example. Israeli diplomats that come to speak on university campuses across the United States encounter organized and well-orchestrated protests that, until recently, were common in Britain.

A speech given by Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren at UC Irvine in February 2010 turned into a mob, causing Oren to leave the auditorium during the middle of his talk. Eight pro-Palestinian activists are currently standing trial on their involvement in the incident.

Israeli diplomat Ismail Khaldi, who served as advisor to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and who in the last several months went on a speaking tour to promote Israel in the United States, experienced the phenomenon when he came to speak at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor at the end of October. What happened at that event can be viewed here.