A necessary prelude to peace?

Can Israel survive its recent battering in public opinion? Many believe that this may be a defining moment in a long history of Israeli impunity. Hitherto, Israel’s record of recovery from international censure has been impressive. A string of past misdeeds–the 1982 Lebanon invasion and siege of Beirut, the Sabra and Shatila camp massacres, the 2006 Lebanon War, the interminable occupation of Arab land, even the 2008-9 war on Gaza that should have been decisive–failed to tarnish Israel’s reputation irreparably. Despite strong international condemnation each time, Israel was always able to shrug off its critics.

The Israeli attack on the Gaza freedom flotilla on May 31 is the current object of international censure. But, going by the past, there is no reason to suppose this time will be different. Speculation about a growing international isolation that will damage Israel may be just that. This May, Israel gained membership in the prestigious OECD, unprecedented for a state of its size. An upgrade of relations with Europe, already most favorable to Israel, is delayed but not cancelled. The fuss over the Gaza flotilla assault is already fading, and Israel may feel it has succeeded in facing down international condemnation yet again.

Yet it may not turn out so well this time. Bravado, the flaunting of Israeli power over the US Congress and the recent success in apparently restoring cordial relations with the US president cannot disguise a tide of rising panic among Israelis. For a state so wedded to the idea of itself as legitimate, reputable and a worthy member of the world community, the battering this image has received in recent months must be worrying. The international climate of opinion has never been so hostile toward Israel. The savage assault on Gaza between the end of 2008 and early 2009 had a powerful impact on international public opinion, further aggravated by the recent assault on the Gaza freedom flotilla, in which nine Turkish humanitarian activists were killed. Israel’s stock invocation of anti-Semitism and security threats is not working. Its partial easing of the blockade on Gaza has also failed to stem the tide of criticism.

Last month Israel’s only Islamic ally, Turkey, announced a suspension of all military cooperation with Israel, worth $7.5 billion. Turkish airspace has been closed to Israeli military aircraft. Fear of reprisals has kept Israeli tourists out of Turkey, and Israeli army officers have been instructed not to visit there. The United Nations has insisted on an independent inquiry into events around the Gaza flotilla, and not the one Israel proposes. Israel’s hitherto unfettered control over Gaza is further under threat by the European Union’s call for an end to the Gaza blockade and its intention to set up a monitoring mechanism of Gaza’s land and sea crossings so that more humanitarian aid can enter the Strip unimpeded. Even Israel’s staunchest ally, the United States, has called the Gaza siege "unacceptable".

Relations between Israel and several western states have been strained since January. Britain and Australia both expelled Israeli diplomats in reaction to the illegal use by Mossad agents of their passports in the Mahmoud al-Mabhouh killing in Dubai. The Polish authorities arrested a Mossad agent accused of involvement in the killing. Britain, France, Spain and Italy have demanded firm action over the flotilla attack. On June 14, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, cancelled a trip to the Paris Arms Show, having been warned that pro-Palestinian groups would seek his arrest.

Meanwhile, the boycott movement against Israel, already active, has gained astonishing momentum. Israeli officials are now frequently targeted at universities in Europe and America, forcing them to cancel lectures. This week 76 distinguished Indian academics, including the writer Arundhati Roy, signed a call for the cultural and academic boycott of Israel. They have joined the well-established British academic boycott of Israel movement, BRICUP, and a growing US academic boycott group. A cultural boycott of Israel movement is also developing; the Pixies, Klaxons and Gorillaz recently cancelled concerts in Israel. Prominent writers Alice Walker and Iain Banks are also boycotting Israel. Banks has refused to have his books translated into Hebrew, as has Jordan’s Queen Rania whose book for children has just been published.

Dockworkers in Sweden, Norway, India and South Africa are refusing to handle Israeli ships. In San Francisco, bay dockworkers delayed Israeli ships for 24 hours, unheard of in the US. Britain’s Unite union has resolved to boycott Israeli companies, and there is a mounting movement in Europe and the US for divestment from companies such as Caterpillar, which work to support Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Individually none of these acts is likely to threaten Israel. It is their collectivity and the speed with which they are spreading and increasing that is important. Beneath the official level of western governmental support for Israel, there is private disquiet about Israeli conduct. And at the popular level, there is a sea change in opinion: where Israel was once seen as the victim, it has now become the bully. In Britain, for example, the strength of popular sympathy for Palestinians is striking. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the same is happening elsewhere.

If this trend continues and Israel’s isolation worsens it will be no bad thing. It may be the only way for Israelis to grasp that endless aggression comes at a price and that peace is not made through the barrel of a gun.