Friday, 20 March 2015

Israel: the Millwall of the Middle East

Imagine it's election day, and the prime minister posts a video message on his Facebook page. "The government is in danger," he says. "The blacks are voting in droves."

I imagine you'd be shocked. I know I would be. Yet that, with just one word changed, is what the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday. (He said "Arabs" rather than "blacks".)

About 20 per cent of Israeli citizens are Arab, and, in theory, they have exactly the same democratic rights as Jewish Israelis. In practice, it's rather different -- no Arab political party has ever, in all of Israel's nearly 67 years of existence, been included in any of its countless, kaleidoscopic coalition governments.

It's something worth remembering the next time you hear an Israeli spokesman boasting that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. The sad fact is that sometimes Israel looks about as democratic as the southern states of the US did in the days before Selma and the civil rights protests.

True, it's still more democratic than most of its neighbours. Even so, the desperate measures that Mr Netanyahu went to to achieve his election victory this week were a shock even to jaded old Middle East observers like me.

By re-electing him as prime minister at the head of a right-wing coalition, Israeli voters look more than ever as if they have chosen to model themselves on the English football club Millwall, whose supporters' best known chant at matches is "No one likes us, we don't care."

It is not difficult to understand why Israelis seem so unconcerned at their reputation among non-Israelis. Those from a European background remember the 19th century pogroms and the Nazi holocaust. Those whose families came from Arab countries remember the anti-Semitism and expulsions following the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948.

Zionism is based largely on the belief that Jews can be truly safe only in a state of their own, reliant on themselves. A strong Israel in a dangerous region is central to Israelis' self-image. And if that means losing friends, so be it.

But it raises an important question. Can a state be truly safe if it has no friends or allies on whom it can rely in times of danger? If Mr Netanyahu really has burned his bridges with Washington (and there are already signs that he's hoping to repair some of the pre-election damage), then is there anyone left to whom Israel can turn?

The veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin wrote in the Jerusalem Post: "Israel is now firmly on the road to almost total international isolation. Israel is now going to find itself in deep conflict with 21 percent of its citizens – the Palestinian Arab minority who … will face the most racist, anti-Arab government Israel has ever had."

Even two years ago, when Israel's diplomatic relations were still in better shape than they are today, the only major government that voted with the US and Israel to oppose the recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state at the United Nations was Canada. (The others were the Czech Republic, Panama, Palau, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Nauru.)  

And last year, in the BBC's annual country ratings poll, in which more than 24,000 people in 24 countries were asked to rate countries according to how favourably they view them, Israel came fourth from bottom, ranking just above Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.

Many Israelis see their growing isolation as a result of growing anti-Semitism. They blame Arab and Muslim immigrants in Europe for a visceral hatred of Jews. Why is it, they wonder, that when anti-Israel protests are held in European capitals, so many of the protesters are Arab?

But you can turn that question on its head. After all, why did Mr Netanyahu feel that he needed to warn his supporters that Israel's Arab citizens were voting in droves last Tuesday? And why, after every attack by a Palestinian extremist, do Jewish Israelis take to the streets and chant "Death to the Arabs"? Visceral hatred is a two-way street.

Some Palestinian commentators have welcomed the Netanyahu victory on the grounds that it's now easier for them to argue that Israel is being seen in its true colours. On the eve of the election, Mr Netanyahu ruled out the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict -- and even if he started to row back as soon as victory was in the bag, few will doubt where his heart really lies.

A substantial number of Israelis are convinced that they can survive perfectly well even if the rest of the world shuns them. They have a nuclear weapons capability, the strongest military in the region and some of the most sophisticated military hardware anywhere on earth. Who needs friends when you're that strong?

And in any case, they will tell you, no one has ever liked the Jews. "Better they don't like us when we're strong than when we're weak. We know only too well where being weak leads."

It's a short-sighted view, and it's dangerous. But it's not incomprehensible. The challenge for the rest of the world, and in particular for the Palestinians, is to find a way to allay the fears and encourage more Israelis to put their faith once again in dialogue. It won't be easy -- but a lot depends on it. It's not as if the Middle East wasn't dangerous enough already.

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