Opinion |

Israel’s Growing Isolation, the Myth That Refuses to Die

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Israel's isolation: Not exactly growing worse.
Israel's isolation: Not exactly growing worse.

Two recent events go a long way to illustrating Israel’s complicated relationship with Europe, and for that matter, with the world.

Last week, a group of European Union ambassadors met with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s new director general, during which they issued a statement condemning demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank. That led to a confrontational discussion in what was supposed to be a routine get-to-know-you meeting.  Again, Israel was in the human-rights doghouse, and barked ferociously in protest.

On Monday, meanwhile, Israel and a group of EU governments backed a $6.4 billion plan to build a pipeline to carry Israeli and Cypriot gas to Europe.

The deal may never go through, but it certainly signifies willingness by Europe not only to do big business with Israel: it brought Europe into a long-term economic commitment.

So, is Israel moving closer to international isolation as Europe and the international community grow increasingly angry at the occupation and human rights violations? Or is Israel a welcome member of the community, enticing the world with its high-tech and natural gas?  

Actually, both isolation and engagement are happening at the same time. The only question is which trend is the more important.

Isolation versus engagement

Let’s look at a sampling of international institutions and measure them by volume (how much attention they receive) versus horsepower (how much they actually make things happen) to see how important they really are.

Volume influences how we see things while horsepower is usually what really counts.

Governments: Volume is how much anyone is paying attention to what a particular country is doing , which means Western democracies with their free press and tumultuous politics attract a lot of attention. Everyone knows what’s happening in Washington; inside the closed corridors of power in Beijing, no one has any idea at all.

But that’s very different from horsepower, which is measured by willingness and ability to use diplomatic, economic and military force to get what you want. Europe talks a lot, but China is spreading its economic tentacles all over the world.

By both standards, America remains No. 1 even in the Obama-Trump era of global disengagement. Europe is No. 2 in terms of volume but on horsepower, it’s way behind does, without a unified diplomatic voice or the military might to enforce its views.  

China is all about low volume, but its economic might alone makes it arguably the No. 2 horsepower state. Ditto for India and the rising powers of Asia.

Bottom line: European coldness to Israel gets a lot of attention, but there’s no substance to it. China & Company, meanwhile, are quietly enhancing their ties to Israel while America remains loyal. On the balance, there’s no case for seeing Israel as growing more isolated.  

Business: As the pipeline agreement demonstrates, however, Europe’s hostility to Israel on the political plane doesn’t extend to business. The EU happily trades with Israel, invests in Israeli companies and gives it preferred status in scientific programs.

Business is as a rule is a low-volume, high-horsepower activity. For every noisy event like Intel’s $15 billion acquisition of Mobileye, hundreds of others occur with little more coverage than the trade press or the bottom half of the newspaper’s business section. But it’s about real money and real commitment on the part of the business involved.

Bottom line: With foreign direct investment to Israel reaching a near record $12.4 billion last year, nearly all of it under the radar, Israeli links to the business world are stronger than ever.

The media: This is volume par excellence, but as far as horsepower goes, it’s looking more like an old nag than ever.

If the media were really that influential, we wouldn’t have Trump or Brexit or Netanyahu (which makes you wonder why he is so obsessed with the idea of controlling it).

The world media is on the whole hostile to Israel, or perhaps to put it more accurately, it gives excessive coverage to Israel’s sins.

But that’s only a real problem when we’re actually fighting a war. In ordinary times, the day-to-day oppressions of the occupation don’t really interest most people, especially when the real outrages are happening elsewhere in the Middle East. What’s a few home demolitions compared to Aleppo being obliterated?  This doesn’t excuse Israel but it does mean that it isn’t going to earn the same kind of approbation it once did – the story’s moved on.

Bottom line: Israel hasn’t won over the media, but it’s lost its attention, so we’re not so bad off on this account.

NGOs/church groups/college campuses: The volume is both high and shrill, but for horsepower, they all count for virtually nothing.

Student senates like to vote BDS resolutions but no board of trustees has ever gone along with one, so as a practical matter, they mean little. Mainline churches in America and established Protestant churches in Europe don’t like Israel much either, but fundamentalists all around the world do – and while they get less attention, they represent by far the majority of the world’s most committed Christians.

NGOs are perhaps Israel’s harshest critics. But they are powerless without the media and governments to act on their critiques of Israel – and that hasn’t happened.

Interestingly, these three groups all represent soft power, the ability to influence public opinion that some people think is as important, if not more so, than the old tools of diplomacy and arms. 

It isn't. Look at Syria: Condemnations of violence and human rights violations have done nothing to end the civil war. What did, to the extent that the war is over, was Russia’s decision to employ some old-fashioned hard power.

Bottom line: Israel is certainly not doing well on the soft power front, which exercises the government to no end, but its importance can easily be exaggerated because it’s high-volume component. We shouldn't be listening too much to it.