In the U.K. and in Israel, a Shift Toward Ultranationalist Isolationism

Unlike the British, Israel doesn’t need a referendum to declare its disengagement from Europe and the West. It's well on its way.

The front pages of the English newspapers reporting the resignation of British Prime Minister David Cameron following the result of the U.K.'s vote to leave the EU in the June 23 referendum.
Rob Bodman, AFP

The shock caused by the British public’s decision to leave the European Union is still fresh. The fall of the world’s stock markets and the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron are just the beginning of a long and tortuous separation whose consequences cannot yet be assessed. Is the entire EU on the brink of disintegration? Will Britain itself continue to be the United Kingdom? What are the vote’s implications for international coalitions — those bound by free trade agreements and those formed in order to wage war on terror?

At this point, all that can be done in the face of these portentous musings is to examine the reasons for the decision to leave. The direct cause was Cameron’s hasty promise to hold a referendum in a bid to placate rivals within his party, a promise that ultimately led to his resignation. But it was nationalist and ultranationalist undercurrents, isolationism, racism and a desire to retreat from a Europe thronged with Syrian refugees, together with an unwillingness to keep taking part in international military operations, that formed the ideological and cultural foundations for the vote to leave. These foundations are apparently shared by a majority of British citizens.

These foundations are not unique to Britain; they can be found today in most European states. Nor is the United States a stranger to isolationist ideology that seeks to distance the superpower from intervention in global crises and which is characterized by racist and xenophobic trends that are apparent in the very candidacy of a figure like Donald Trump.

The ultranationalist and isolationist undercurrents that separated Britain from Europe are flowing in Israel as well, and they do not remain below the surface. Israel, it seems, doesn’t need a referendum or official decision in order to declare its disengagement from Europe or the West. Its policy and identity as the last occupation state in the West is a de facto declaration. But unlike Britain, Israel needs the support of international coalitions for its survival.

The ultranationalist isolationism that Israel flaunts is not a defensive wall against international boycotts and sanctions, but rather a wall of paper. In Europe the racism, xenophobia and hatred of minorities cultivated by extreme right-wing movements still run up against powerful liberal and humanitarian dams. In Israel these dams are collapsing. Britain’s decision must not be seen in Israel as a model for emulation by those who believe the state can exist as an island. The ultranationalist right must not be allowed to turn Israel into a state imprisoned in a solitary confinement of nations.