World Cup supporters celebrate during a fans' party in Cape Town, June 10, 2010.
World Cup supporters celebrate during a fans' party in Cape Town, June 10, 2010. Photo by Reuters
Text size

Israelis might consider sending thank-you bouquets today to the national soccer teams of Switzerland and Greece. It is thanks to them that Israelis will have to choose between getting behind Brazil, England, Ghana or whomever, as the World Cup kicks off.

Of course, it would be nice to wrap ourselves in blue and white, and cheer on the likes of Yossi, Guy and Ben. But on this occasion, one should probably be thankful that we didn't make it. Hence, those flowers.

There were large demonstrations in Cape Town last week following the Mavi Marmara incident. For now, South Africa has recalled its ambassador, Ismail Coovadia, from Israel. An Israeli presence at this greatest of global sporting spectacles would have been guaranteed to attract an unrelenting wave of protests, PR stunts and bad publicity.

Unfortunately, South Africa is not the outlier - Israel is. In the days since Operation Sky Winds, Israel has been able to get a glimpse of the future and into the abyss that awaits if we continue on our current course. It is a future replete with both insecurity and the indignity of global opprobrium and sanctions.

Even or perhaps especially in our hyper-connected world, it seems only a finite number of truly global causes can be sustained at any one time. Palestine is now irrefutably on that list. That is certainly inconvenient for Israel and maybe unfair. We do, though, appear to be locked into a dramatic acceleration of this phenomenon and - in the absence of something resembling a credible peace or de-occupation effort - the global Palestinian solidarity movement is now competing to set the agenda.

In the last two weeks alone, two of Italy's largest supermarket chains have stopped carrying Israeli products; Swedish dockworkers have refused to unload goods from Israeli ships; Britain's largest trade union, Unite, unanimously voted to boycott Israeli items; and Elvis Costello and the Pixies have both canceled shows in Israel. Meanwhile, the latest debate raging in the United States is over how much of a strategic burden Israel has become.

The logic of the kind of unarmed resistance represented by flotillas to Gaza is to shine a light on the wrongdoings of an offending party. Ideally, one will succeed in appealing to the better nature, to the humanity, of the offending party, and its behavior (in this case, the blockade on Gaza ) will be corrected. If not, then one may seek to shame that party in the court of global public opinion. Any over-reaction or additional offensive behavior will only serve to strengthen the case of the light-shiner and "prove" the original premise of wrongdoing.

In this instance, Israel's leadership played its role with Lionel Messi-like perfection. It's true that Israel's official PR response was ill-conceived, while its "army" of citizen advocates indulged in the use of racist stereotypes on YouTube videos, doing more harm than good. But Israel's predicament goes far deeper than the embarrassment of having Avigdor Lieberman head this country's diplomatic corps: It has become structural and therefore far more worrying. The gap between Israel's self-perception and global perceptions of the country has taken on Grand Canyon-like proportions.

In short, the game is up. This is not defeatism - it's an acknowledgment of a reality that, by ignoring, causes Israel to imperil itself. It cannot be reversed by doubling PR budgets or endlessly cloning Shimon Peres or even Mark Regev. It cannot be reversed by allowing coriander into Gaza, by another photo-op with our friend President Mubarak, or even by enthusiastically supporting the creation of a new Palestinian town (ship ) in Rawabi. An occupation that just entered its 44th year and entails denying basic rights to millions of Palestinians can no longer be sanitized. As long as Israel maintains that occupation, the costs will become increasingly burdensome.

Having lost the world, Israel's focus turns in on itself. The country's leadership has to work harder to keep its own public on board for the occupation project. This requires a growing suppression of dissent, further ostracizing Israel's Palestinian minority, and ever-more aggressive appeals to Jewish national pride. Democratic norms are thereby eroded, further feeding the tarnishing of Israel's image. This is the vicious cycle in which Israel is embroiled.

It is true that there will almost certainly always be unjustified prejudice toward Israel. Whatever it does, some people will always be out to get us. But prejudice is not what motivates the vast majority of those mobilizing in solidarity with the Palestinians. The occupation is the oxygen of their campaign, and the vast majority seek an end to it - not to Israel itself. An Israel that fails to appreciate this and which sustains the occupation is the single most proximate cause of its own delegitimization.

It is still in our power, however, to change all of this. We can end the 1967 occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and its remnants in Gaza, and achieve recognition for minor border modifications to the '67 line with one-for-one land swaps and support for reasonable arrangements on security. Israel could implement such a de-occupation with the Palestinians and Arab states directly, or with the U.S. and the Quartet - and have them deliver the Palestinian and Arab side of the bargain.

But if Israel does not take the lead, then let us at least hope that our remaining friends in the world will step forward with their own proposals and that we in turn will have the wisdom to say yes to them.

Enjoy the World Cup, and let's look forward to Israel's qualification in 2014 being all about soccer and blissfully devoid of politics.

 

Daniel Levy is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and editor of the Middle East Channel at foreignpolicy.com