When Israel Talks, the World Shrugs

Israel wasn't able to attract international press for seizing Iran's arms ship, because the occupation prevents us from being taken seriously.

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The seizure of the arms ship on the high seas was not an act of piracy. A state has the right to take measures of self defense. There is no doubt that had the weapons on the Klos C reached the Gaza Strip, they would have caused Israeli civilian casualties and even more casualties among the inhabitants of Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pounced on the event as though it were buried treasure, ordering up an extravagant PR display that climaxed with him pronouncing that in the future, Iran will be able to conceal nuclear weapons on its ships and send them to any port in the world.

But the grandiose production was met with international indifference. Commentators tried to explain that the event was pushed aside by the crisis in Ukraine and the disappearance of the Malaysian airplane. That explanation is inadequate. The global media can deal with four or five juicy stories simultaneously. Netanyahu failed not because he didn’t have a “case,” but rather because of Israel’s international image. No one is buying stories peddled by an occupying, settler state; no argument can appear straightforward when it's being voiced by a violator of international norms.

Israel’s hands are tied. If it goes to war against the threat from Gaza, it will face increasing international complaints about its long-running blockade of the territory. We need to understand that we don’t appear the way we would like to appear. We’re like someone who goes to the mikveh ("Jewish purification bath") while eating treif ("non-kosher food").

A few months ago, I met with an person in high office who was involved in the deliberations over whether to attack Iran. He argued that it is impossible to make such a decision without talking with the Arab states that oppose Tehran’s nuclear aspiration, but at the same time such a discussion is impossible unless Israel becomes significantly more flexible in its negotiations with the Palestinians. “Only a breakthrough,” he said, “could lead to a change in the climate of the Middle East and a nascent partnership between parts of the Arab world and Israel.” He recalled telling a policy maker, “If you seek to attack Iran, know that you must adopt the political norms of [Meretz chairwoman and Knesset member] Zahava Gal-On.” The man is not a Meretz or Labor Party supporter; he was simply offering a rational analysis of the alternatives facing us.

We run into the same problem with regard to the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state (a demand we never made with anyone else as a precondition for an agreement) — the image of the party making the demand. Seeing as broad swaths of the public in Israel and abroad believe that Israel does not want to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, since Netanyahu, his party and most of his cabinet are opposed to any genuine compromise, the premier’s demand regarding recognition of the Jewish state looks like part of his overall intransigence. I have absolutely no doubt that Israel would not have reached peace treaties with Egypt and with Jordan had they been faced with the same demand.

It may be that Netanyahu is acting methodically to preclude any peace agreement. If that is his position and his will, then in the meantime he is getting his way. His government is increasingly considered a pariah abroad, but no meaningful steps have been taken. The problem is that this policy is not congruent with Israel’s existential interests. When we come to realize this it will already be too late, and we will no longer be able to obtain a peace agreement on acceptable terms.

Netanyahu during a press conference in Eilat, while Iranian-supplied rockets seized on the Klos C displayed behind him.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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