Israelis See the World
By Yossi Klein
New York Times
May 4, 2018
In 2002, when much of the international community was
severely criticizing Israel for its tough military response to the wave of
Palestinian suicide bombings known as the Second Intifada, the United Nations
secretary general, Kofi Annan, asked with rhetorical exasperation, “Can Israel
be right and the whole world wrong?”
Most Israelis would have surely answered: Of course.
After all, only two years earlier, Israel had offered to
withdraw from virtually the entire West Bank and Gaza. In return, it received
the worst wave of terrorism in its history. That Israeli narrative of why the
peace process failed transformed Israel’s politics for a generation, leading
to the near-total collapse of the left as a viable political force. Meanwhile,
much of the world ignored Israel’s spurned overture and continued to fault the
Jewish state for the continuing occupation it had sought to end.
Today, we Israelis are experiencing another moment of
radical disconnect with much of world opinion.
Every Friday for the past several weeks, the Islamist Hamas
has mobilized tens of thousands of demonstrators, who have embarked on a
“march of return” toward Israel. The initial goal is to destroy the fence
and cross Israel’s internationally recognized border. The long-term goal is to
demographically destroy the Jewish-majority state through a “return” of
descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war.
In response, Israel has used live fire against the
demonstrators, killing dozens and injuring over a thousand in the last month of
Israel has been fiercely condemned by United Nations
officials, European leaders and human rights organizations, who insist that the
Israel Defense Forces is, once again, resorting to disproportionate force. But
for Israelis, the weekly demonstrations — which are accompanied by firebombs
and burning kites dispatched into Israeli fields and breakthroughs by small
groups of Hamas members into Israeli territory — are an intolerable threat.
Israelis view these demonstrations as part of a wider
assault that includes continual attempts, along every border, to penetrate the
country’s defenses — whether through tunnels from Gaza, periodic waves of
missiles and rockets fired from Gaza and Lebanon and, most worrying of all,
threats from the growing Iranian military presence in Syria. Those assaults are
part of an increasingly successful Iranian plan to surround Israel’s borders
with what Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has called “the golden ring in
the chain of resistance.”
While the world sees images that confirm the Jewish state
as the region’s Goliath, many of us regard our country as Goliath and David
simultaneously. In our conflict with the Palestinians, we are the overwhelming
power. But in our conflict with much of the Arab and Muslim worlds, we are
vulnerable. Israel has in the past been the underdog. And if we lessen our
alertness, we could be again. The presence of terrorist enclaves on almost every
one of Israel’s borders helps explain the determination of the I.D.F. to
prevent demonstrators from trying to break through the fence.
But that resolute posture creates another strategic threat
for Israel. The very tactics that keep us relatively safe in one of the
world’s most dangerous regions are undermining our moral credibility abroad.
This, then, is Israel’s dilemma: Can it maintain its deterrence in the Middle
East without fatally undermining its position in the West?
One of the lowest moments in the Israeli disconnect with
world opinion occurred in 2010, when the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, tried to
break the Israeli sea blockade of Gaza. Israeli commandos boarded the ship and
in the ensuing skirmish, 10 Islamist activists were killed and several dozen
wounded, along with 10 wounded Israeli soldiers. Israel argued that enforcing
its sea blockade was essential in preventing Iranian missiles from reaching
Hamas. Moreover, insisted Israel, its soldiers were in mortal danger from armed
passengers. But the international consensus against Israel was devastating:
Israel had killed supposedly peaceful humanitarian aid workers, and its blockade
against Gaza was a war crime.
A year later, the United Nations released the surprising
results of its inquiry into the incident. While it faulted Israel for excessive
force, it acknowledged that soldiers faced organized violence. Most surprising
of all, the investigation supported both Israel’s right to board the ship and
to impose the blockade as acts of self-defense consistent with international law
— the first time in memory that the United Nations had upheld an Israeli
Yet today those findings are almost entirely forgotten, and
Israel once again stands accused of maintaining an immoral blockade of Gaza.
The moral dissonance between Israel and the international
community only strengthens the Israeli hard right, which argues, in the words of
an old Israeli song, that “the whole world is against us.” Disproportionate
criticism — for example, the fact that Israel is criticized in United Nations
forums more often than all the other countries in the world combined —
reinforces that isolationist mind-set. When critics trivialize a threat to
Israel’s border as “peaceful demonstrations,” Israelis conclude that world
opinion is either obtuse or hostile. The result is a dismissal of any criticism.
By contrast, when Israelis sense a willingness in the
international community to consider their concerns, they tend to respond with
greater openness to the moral critiques of outsiders. The Oslo peace process was
born in part because of the changed atmosphere toward Israel in the early 1990s,
when the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had led the diplomatic campaign
against Israel, resulted in numerous countries establishing relations with the
The promise of the State of Israel to the Jewish people was
to end its seemingly eternal otherness and restore it to the community of
nations. Part of remaining faithful to that vision is to heed the warnings of
outsiders, especially friends, and not withdraw in bitter isolation. But no less
important for the fulfillment of Israel’s promise is to ensure that those who
seek to destroy it are kept from breaching its borders. How to balance those two
imperatives defines the challenge facing Israel today.