For anyone who thinks of Israel as a serial violator of Western human rights norms, there was no paucity of incidents this week. Two activists were turned back at Ben-Gurion Airport for allegedly supporting the BDS movement. A Palestinian poet was convicted of incitement for some verses that included lines like “I will not succumb to the ‘peaceful solution.’” On the border with Gaza, 45 Palestinians have been killed to date and more casualties can expected on Friday this week.
By all standards Israel should be facing international condemnation on a massive scale. We should be persona non grata in the community of nations, just like South Africa was in the pre-apartheid era or North Korea is today.
But this week was also the week that Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of China’s Alibaba and a high-tech icon on par with Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, visited Israel. On Friday, the first leg of the Giro d’Italia bicycle race begins in Jerusalem (carefully skirting east Jerusalem). There were at least three major cross-border mergers and acquisition deals this week involving Israeli companies totaling a billion-plus dollars.
And the list goes on. Amazon is seeking English-Hebrew translators to build a local website, deepening its presence in the country beyond just research and development. The European Union is inviting Israel and Cyprus to link their electricity grids to Europe. That’s not only an important technical advance, ensuring Israel has power in case of a major failure or overextended, but a political statement, no less.
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Two things have happened to explain how Israel can be seemingly so badly behaved and at the same time remain so welcome in the realms of international business, politics and even sports and entertainment.
The first is that the world has changed. In the West, the rise of populist politics, with its hostility to immigration and global institutions and its nationalism, has put the defenders of the international order based on law and human rights on the defensive, if not in outright retreat. In Europe, populists only won control of a handful of second-string powers in Europe, but the populist idea captured the biggest prize of them all with the election of Donald Trump. Where the United States goes, others inevitably follow.
Meanwhile, the rising power of China is serving not only as an economic counterweight to the U.S. and Europe but a political one as well. Its undisputed economic success at a time when the Western democracies remain traumatized by the 2008 recession has made its model of technocracy, centralized control and zero tolerance for dissent a compelling alternative.
In this context, the assault on democracy in Israel by the country’s ruling right is not far out of line with the direction the rest of the world is taking.
But there is a compelling economic reason for Israel’s continued welcome.
In the real world –the one that exists outside the offices of NGOs, the halls of academe and op-ed pages – economics, business and national security are what win a country a place of respect, or not, in the community of nations.
The world can afford to be judgmental about the human rights records of Myanmar, Syria or any number of African countries because there’s little or no price to pay for it. But China and Saudi Arabia get a free pass because they are too economically important and/or critical to Western national security interests for anyone to get serious enough about it to impose sanctions or other measures. Let Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International write what they want.
Israel remains in the crosshairs of the international human rights community. Last week, Amnesty called for a total arms embargo on Israel. But it’s hard to image a single Western leader giving this more than an ironic smile. Amid worries of Iranian expansionism, Islamism, and the chaos in Syria, Israel is too important a counterweight for human rights issues to factor.
For world business, too, Israel has become too important to ignore, and for that we can thank Startup Nation. Companies are in a desperate race to keep up with the pace of technology developments. One of the few places that taps into cutting-edge products and services and keeps up with the latest trends is Israel.
That’s why direct foreign investment last year reached $18.6 billion, nearly all of it put into high-tech companies.
All of this makes the Israeli government’s obsession with the boycotts, sanctions and divestment movement delusional. But it’s a potential fatal delusion because its obsession about Israel’s enemies doesn’t stop at BDS but is aimed with almost equal fervor at the institutions at home that defend democracy, diversity and free speech – all the qualities of Israeli society that make high-tech possible and provide Israel with its best defense against its critics.
The international environment has made it easier for the right to pursue its obsessions without any serious damage to Israel’s international standing. But if the right continues to get its way, it’s going to do even more serious damage to Israeli society, and undo everything that has made Israel succeed until now.