Just a few weeks ago pessimism was in the air regarding Israel.
The Obama administration was pressing Israel on settlements, and it seemed likely that Israel would be blamed for the lack of resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Iran was continuing its march toward a nuclear weapon, and the most the world seemed to be offering was engagement with the discredited regime.
An individual who had called for the burning of Israeli books appeared headed to become the next head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
What a difference a few weeks can make. There are still looming threats, but the environment has definitely changed for the better, and we need to identify why that is so in order to ensure that recent trends become part of the permanent landscape.
One important lesson of these weeks is that the notion that “they’re all against us” has taken a hit. Yes, it is true that the Goldstone Report – the United Nations Human Rights Council-mandated investigation into Israel’s operation in Gaza – created a dangerous and totally unwarranted equivalence between the Israel Defense Forces and the terrorists of Hamas. Its fundamentally biased assessment seemed to reinforce the idea that no matter what Israel does, the international community will be against it. There is no doubt that when a body such as the Human Rights Council takes an initiative regarding the Middle East, Israel will find itself under attack.
But other recent events suggest that there is nothing reflexive in the world’s reaction to Israel, and a combination of Israeli strength and sensitivity together with the exposure of the behavior of Israel’s enemies can have a significant impact on various players in the international community.
Let’s begin with the settlements issue. It has been noted that a significant change took place when President Obama, after months of insisting that Israel had to freeze all settlements in order to restart negotiations, took a different tack by calling on the Palestinians to do more to stop incitement and move forward with negotiations, while giving the Israelis credit for facilitating greater freedom of movement for the Palestinians and discussing “important steps to restrain settlement activity.”
What factors brought change? There were contributions from all sides.
Israel showed both a willingness to be responsive to U.S. pleas as well as a determination to stand on principle. It offered to dismantle illegal settlements and limit support for new settlements, particularly outside the blocs, but would not stifle natural growth and would not accede to demands that Jerusalem be treated as if it were in the west bank.
The Arab world failed to meet the challenge of taking even minor steps to normalize relations with Israel, thereby raising questions about assumptions that the Arabs were finally ready for peace with Israel.
The Palestinians became too obvious in their pleasure that the Obama administration’s focus on settlements was taking away the heat for their responsibility to act.
And the administration realized that their goal of advancing the peace process had been undermined by their own initiative on settlements, which had managed to alienate the Israelis, made the Palestinians even less willing than usual to take steps toward peace, and did nothing to incentivize the Arabs to act beyond their peace initiative in order to further the process.
Whatever criticism might be directed at the administration as to how it handled the issue for six months, more important was their ability to adjust as events played out.
So, too, on Iran. Here a combination of Israeli steadfastness, surprising strength, and realism from Europe, and America’s willingness to have events affect their decision-making all had impact. Most significant were the revelations coming out of Iran.
Not only was the regime showing itself as illegitimate after the rigged election and the violent treatment of those who peacefully protested. Now it turned out that what Israel suspected was indeed true: As bad as the open Iranian program to enrich uranium was, there was a secret facility in Qom that made the threat of a nuclear Iran imminent and deadly serious. To a large extent the double blow of Iran as an openly repressive regime, willing to brutalize its citizens to stay in power, and the revelation of the secret facility changed the dynamic of the issue. Until these events, despite all the work to expose Iran, a certain apathy and malaise existed surrounding the issue that was attributable to reduced U.S. credibility following the false reading on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program together with the fear of blundering into another war like that in Iraq.
Now that has changed. Arguments about sanctions are looking different, and instead of being seen as steps that could lead to war, as so many argued in opposing escalating sanctions, they are now broadly seen as necessary steps to avoid military conflict. Particularly stark in all this is the forthrightness of the Europeans, who in their tough words are appearing to truly recognize that time is running out and a nuclear Iran would be a dire threat to them and to the entire world.
This new environment is manifest in the words of the administration: Dialogue is still in the air but it appears to be taking a back seat to warnings, to a sense of urgency to the need for the strong countries to work together to prevent Iran from getting a bomb, that had been missing all along.
And then there’s the Farouk Hosni affair – the Egyptian Minister of Culture who was widely expected to become the new head of UNESCO despite his calling for the burning of Israeli books. It didn’t happen, even as his president pressured other nations to support him. Here, too, there was a willingness of the international community to pay attention to the facts.
In the end, Hosni’s assault on Israeli culture did matter. His book-burning threat was not treated as mere rhetoric or dismissed as just another attack on Israel from the Arab world. This was something extraordinary – an individual seeking to be the head of the world’s culture body, himself a minister of culture, had voiced barbaric hatred against the Jewish people and their culture. This could not stand. Facts do count in the international community – at least sometimes.
While it has been a good few weeks for Israel, there is no reason to be complacent. The Goldstone report makes that clear. There are the ideological enemies of Israel who look to spread their influence. But there is as well a world out there that can be aroused, that can be brought to see what is – to us – so obvious.
We must not wallow in some illusions that they’re all against us. What we have to bottle is that formula for the right mix to get the leaders of the world to understand the basics.