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Used to isolation in world opinion, where does Israel put its trust?

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–It is sad, even pathetic, but not surprising that the UN meeting of parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons concluded their month long conference by calling for the monitoring of Israel’s nuclear program without mentioning that of Iran. 

The United States participated in the consensus, but senior officials note their criticisms of its language. They are saying that they aspire to a nuclear free Middle East, and there has been no change in long-standing American positions including an assurance of Israel’s defense.

This is diplomatic talk for having one’s cake and eating it, too. The United States is joining Israel in the language of nuclear ambiguity. 

Israeli media coverage is not friendly to the American maneuver, and is featuring Israeli government statements ridiculing the conference document and indicating that Israel will not be bound by it. 

Israel is used to political isolation. It recognizes the bias in UN organizations due to the one country-one vote arrangement, the weight of Muslims and the influence of money, oil and gas. It also understands diplomatic double talk, such as that currently heard from the White House, and the prominent role of Egypt in pressing for resolutions against Israel’s nuclear capabilities. Israel also benefits from public and not-so-public lines of cooperation with the United States, Egypt, and other governments that  participate in verbal lynching.

It is not easy to calculate the damage to Israel of the frequent diatribes against it, and the damage to those who participate in them, or participate while distancing themselves from what they formally accept. Outright condemnations and singling out may cost Israelis something in respect and access to international opportunities. But the lack of support also has costs for others–including the United States–due to Israeli suspicions of their intentions. 

The next embarrassment for Israel is not far off. A limping flotilla aspiring to break the blockade of Gaza has been organized by Turkish and Palestinian Islamists with the participation of activists from other countries. How many of the ships will approach Gaza is no longer certain, given mechanical problems the organizers are blaming on Israel. The Israeli navy intends to keep the participants from reaching Gaza, and bring them instead to Ashdod, deportation, or prison. 

Whatever happens, there will be criticism of Israel’s blockade, with or without a serious consideration of the reasons that Israel maintains the blockade, or the food, fuel, medicines and other material that Israel allows through.

Alongside Israel’s demonization is the realization that the country has supporters. 

Questions always are on the agenda are:

Is their support stable? Do those who support also oppose specific actions? Are supporters capable of influencing their governments? 

There are also questions about Israel’s critics. 

How intense are they? Do their comments portend hostile action? How to decipher comments that express both criticize and support, or criticism for Israel as well as its adversaries?

Alongside all of these questions is:

Can Israel rely on anyone other than its own population and institutions? 

This leads to the next question: 

Who within this contentious and beleaguered country is the ultimate arbiter of what the country should be doing?

What this boils down to, here as in other democracies, is that there is no ultimate arbiter. The current government runs the country, with procedures for weighing inputs from its various components. Outside of the government, with a powerful word–but not necessarily final word–is the Supreme Court and its capacity to decide if a decision of the government or one of its functionaries departs from established law. Beyond that is the plurality of media, opposition politicians and independent commentators.

Not to be discounted is familiarity with balancing opportunities and constraints, honed by several millennia experience with more powerful others and internal dispute.

Along with concerns for their standing among others, Israelis also calculate whether to cooperate with others, and by how much. The economic, military and moral weights of the country are far from absolute, but they are not negligible.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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