Benjamin Netanyahu's aggressive stance tarnishes Israel in the eyes of the world
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
Israel needs supporters around the world to save it from itself.
The best thing that its boosters in Australia and elsewhere
can do now is to abandon myopic support of the nation, its government
and its dangerous prime minister.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urgently needs to be
reminded that international diplomatic, political and public support for
Israel is not unconditional. Every day in Gaza, every death in Gaza
increases the prospect that Israel’s great fear of “de-legitimisation”
by the international community will be realised.
If Israel is indeed facing an existential threat, then
Netanyahu bears the lion’s share of blame. For years he has held all the
cards in the stand-off between Israelis and Palestinians and failed to
use them for his nation’s long-term benefit. He has allowed events to
deteriorate so disastrously that Israel’s Gaza adventure will inevitably
diminish his nation’s international standing still further.
Netanyahu has taken his nation down a path of confrontation
from which it will be hard to return. He has provided Israel’s enemies
with more ammunition to attack the nation than any other Prime Minister
since Menachem Begin launched the misbegotten invasion of Lebanon in
1982 and trashed his reputation as a Nobel peace prize recipient.
Since he took the reins in 2009, Netanyahu has fulfilled the
worst fears of Israelis and friends abroad who believed in the prospect
of a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians – the only path by which
Israel can survive and prosper.
Hand-in-hand with rejectionist politicians, an aggressive
settler movement and those who believe in an expansionist Israel,
Netanyahu has determinedly blocked Palestinian aspirations for
nationhood – the very same aspirations that the Jewish diaspora
fulfilled in 1948. Jewish settlements in occupied territories and the
“security wall” are merely physical manifestations of wide-ranging
policies that undermine any prospect of an equitable settlement under
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have become
increasingly despairing while those in the Gaza Strip have become more
angry and outraged at their imprisonment. Of course there is a surge in
hatred, of course there is a turning to more extreme forms of
At the same time a succession of international opinion polls
has revealed increasing public frustration with Israeli policies. There
is declining support for the nation even in the United States.
This view is not new but it is growing. It began as far back
as the Lebanon misadventure when Israel’s claim to be a “plucky little
state amongst a sea of enemies” first slipped. It had become an
aggressor. Its complicity in the massacre of Palestinians in two refugee
camps under Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon (later to become Prime
Minister), merely hastened the fall from grace. Its brutal attempts to
suppress the Palestinian uprising, the intifada, in 1987 accelerated the
It took a much more far-sighted and able man than Netanyahu to reclaim some of that lost status.
Confronted yet again by a disaster in the battle for
international opinion, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was eventually
forced by the intifada to negotiate with “terrorist” Yasser Arafat’s
PLO. Rabin brought his nation closer to peace than any other Israeli
politician and might well have succeeded had he not been assassinated by
a right-wing Israeli fanatic opposed to the peace process.
Rabin, a military commander and hero, told me once that every
war inevitably ended with opponents talking to each other. This was on
the same occasion on which he kicked me out of his office for being
Now, as Israel’s international reputation takes a renewed
hammering, Netanyahu needs to recognise that the other “terrorist”
organisation, Hamas, also reflects legitimate Palestinian aspirations.
Israel encouraged the growth of Hamas in the 1980s so it could divide
and undermine Arafat’s secular PLO – an irony lost on most today. That
policy rebounded badly when Hamas won democratic elections in Gaza in
2006 and unsurprisingly proceeded to impose Islamist social mores on its
constituents. Its public position was aggressively anti-Israeli but,
while reporting from there, it was made clear to me by Hamas leaders
that under the right circumstances the public and private postures could
be very different – as is always the case in international disputes.
But Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon failed to heed the lessons that Rabin learnt in the 80s.
Their policies of increasing the stranglehold on Gazans in
their prison and refusing to deal in any way with their elected
government, while tightening the fist of occupation on West Bank and
East Jerusalem and leaving no hope for peace have led directly to the
latest series of catastrophes.
No one needs to condone the kidnap and murder of three young
Israeli settlers – arguably the most immediate trigger for a series of
events that led to the battle in Gaza – nor for Hamas rockets being
fired indiscriminately into civilian areas of Israel. But these actions
are easily understood as an outgrowth of frustration, despair and anger
brought about by the policies of Netanyahu’s government.
Gaza itself is now isolated from the outside world by Israel
and by an antagonistic new regime in Egypt. It leaves Hamas little
choice but to continue the battle since the only long-term ceasefire
(proposed by Egypt and the US and accepted by Israel) would spell total
capitulation. Israel went on to reject a second proposal.
Israel will naturally win the Battle of Gaza. Indeed, it can
hardly be described as a battle at all since it is so one-sided. The
death toll on both sides makes that abundantly clear.
The Israeli military annual budget of some $US14 billion is
supplemented by a US contribution of $US3 billion a year, plus a further
$US235 million for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system Israel deploys to
render Hamas’ comparatively puny rockets ineffective.
Faced with such overwhelming military firepower and by such
political intransigence, Hamas will continue to fight in the only way it
can for as long as it can – from amidst the chaos of a devastated city
in one of the most densely crowded places on earth. Some of its attacks
will inevitably be launched from heavily populated areas of Gaza. Just
about everywhere is densely packed while to “come out and fight in the
open” – as Israel seems to be daring the resistance to do – is a
ludicrous invitation to suicide in the face of such overwhelming and
sophisticated force. Armies hate urban warfare where overwhelming force
becomes vulnerable to guerilla tactics.
In government, Hamas has proved itself incompetent and
aggressive. But it is not, as Netanyahu charges, built in the mould of
the extreme Islamist movement in Iraq and Syria, ISIS. It could be
brought to the table. It has already agreed to a unity government with
the secular PLO – a moved blocked by Israel.
The great sadness is that Netanyahu does not appear to be the man for this pivotal moment.
Israel needs someone with enough stature and vision to
relaunch the nation on a course that Yitzhak Rabin set when he declared
"We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today,
in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough!"
Peter George was the ABC’s first Middle East Correspondent and reported the region over 25 years.