Israel’s global standing is continuing to deteriorate, a new report from some of the country’s top strategists concludes.
“Israel’s image in Western countries continues to decline, a trend that enhances the ability of hostile groups to engage in actions aimed at depriving Israel of moral and political legitimacy and launch boycotts,” the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University states in its 2016-2017 Strategic Survey for Israel.
The 275-page report, authored by a who’s who of figures from Israel’s political, intelligence and military establishment, was presented on Monday to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin by INSS director Amos Yadlin, a former air force general and head of Israeli military intelligence.
It notes in particular that “the international campaign to delegitimize Israel continues, as reflected in the BDS movement,” a reference to the growing Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. Israel habitually describes advocacy for full rights for Palestinians, or criticism of its abuses, as “delegitimization.”
The report says that Israel’s “current right-wing government has contributed to this deterioration,” as have “anti-democratic legislative initiatives,” as well as international concerns about Israel’s “overreaction” to what it terms a “wave of terrorist attacks” by Palestinians.
According to the report, Israel’s efforts to compensate for its deteriorating relations with its traditional supporters, by bolstering ties with “non-democratic countries, especially Russia and China, are looked down upon in the international arena.”
There is “no sign that [such countries] are willing to give Israel the political, scientific, technological and military support it receives from other countries, mainly the United States and some European countries,” the report states.
This is particularly worrying for Israel given that the “status of the United States in the Middle East continues to weaken” as does its commitment to maintaining its hegemony in the Middle East, an alliance Israel relies on for ensuring its “power and deterrence.”
“Despite good relations between Moscow and Jerusalem, Russia is not a substitute for security, political and economic support by the United States and the West,” the report concludes.
While Israeli leaders expect close relations with the United States under President Donald Trump, the report warns that his administration is expected to “reinforce isolationist trends.”
It also notes trends within the United States that threaten long-term support for Israel. During President Barack Obama’s term, “the notion that the two nations have ‘shared values,’ appears to have eroded with the perceived weakening of Israel’s democratic ethos.” Similarly, the report finds an “erosion” of the identification Jewish Americans feel with Israel, which is also “bound to have harmful repercussions for Israel.”
There is also polarization: conservative support for Israel remains strong, while liberals are increasingly ambivalent, displaying a “greater inclination to view the Palestinian plight as analogous to apartheid.” This sentiment, the report adds, is helping fuel the BDS movement, which is “now widespread on American campuses” and could affect US-Israel relations in the future.
The Israeli strategists are clear that in terms of the conventional balance of forces in the region, “Israel’s military power is undisputed” – there is no threat from the armies of Egypt, Syria or Jordan.
But they continue to view the Lebanese resistance movement Hizballah as a major threat.
Despite the fact that Hizballah is currently embroiled in Syria’s civil war, the report sees the group emerging with enhanced support from Iran, hardened battlefield experience and “long-range fire capabilities endowed with great destructive power and ever-improving accuracy.”
An expanded and prolonged Russian military presence in the region, a consequence of Moscow’s intervention in Syria that has turned the tide in favor of the government of President Bashar al-Assad, would also restrict Israel’s freedom of military action.
“From Israel’s perspective,” the report states, “the best scenario is the disappearance of the Assad regime, along with the removal of Iran and Hizballah from Syria on the one hand, and the defeat of the Islamic State [also known as ISIS or ISIL] and the establishment of a moderate Sunni regime in Syria on the other.”
Interestingly, the report claims that “this model has materialized in limited form in the Golan Heights, where moderate Sunni rebels are successfully combating both the Assad regime and the Islamic State.”
Last year, Jabhat al-Nusra nominally cut its ties to al-Qaida, renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and launched a major rebranding effort with the assistance of Western media.
INSS too appears ready to soft sell the organization.
“Jabhat al-Nusra’s freeing itself from affiliating with al-Qaida [has] made Jabhat Fateh al-Sham a force that can cooperate with other organizations that are not Salafi jihadist, and even receive external assistance,” the report suggests.
It adds that Jabhat al-Nusra is “organized and funded (by Saudi Arabia), well-equipped, and with far better performance levels than other rebel groups.”
This comparatively benign view echoes the sentiments expressed by Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, who defended Israel’s provision of medical care to Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, in an interviewwith Al Jazeera last May.
By contrast, Halevy said he would never advocate the treatment of wounded Hizballah fighters because Israel has been targeted by Hizballah, but “not specifically targeted by al-Qaida.”
The fact that al-Qaida is credited with the 9/11 mega-attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on the soil of Israel’s closest ally apparently does not figure into Israel’s calculations.
Israel’s cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra, and its interest in seeing a Sunni sectarian regime installed in Damascus, underscores a major theme of the INSS report: Israel’s growing ties with so-called Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, out of a shared enmity towards predominantly Shia Iran.
The report mentions, for instance, the visit of Saudi general Anwar Eskhi to Israel last summer. Eshki told his hosts that the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict serves as a breeding ground for the growth of Iranian ideology” in the region, according to the report.
Israel’s top strategists recognize that the stalemate with the Palestinians is a major contributor to the deterioration of Israel’s global standing. It is also an obstacle to fostering closer and more public ties with sectarian dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, whose publics still strongly support the Palestinian cause.
While the INSS reports sees no realistic possibility of movement toward a two-state solution in the foreseeable future, its authors fear a continuing slide down a “slope leading toward a one-state reality” – a warning similar to that given by outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry last month.
But INSS has no new ideas for how to get Israel out of its predicament. Indeed the report tries to revive the concept of “unilateral separation” that was proposed by the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert more than a decade ago.
The idea is to consolidate Israeli settlements in large parts of the occupied West Bank, pacify the Palestinian population through improved economic conditions and strengthen the Israeli-backed Palestinian Authority police-state regime to keep Palestinians under tight control.
The separation would be cosmetic, however, since at all times Israel’s occupation forces and Shin Bet secret police would maintain “complete freedom of action” throughout the West Bank.
Eventually, Israel might recognize a “Palestinian state within provisional borders” in up to 65 percent of the West Bank, while it effectively annexes large areas it has settled west of the separation wall it has built in the occupied territory.
The report acknowledges that “a severe humanitarian crisis already prevails in the Gaza Strip,” which has been under a decade-long Israeli blockade, supported by Egypt’s military rulers.
This will inevitably lead to another major escalation of violence, unless something is done to alleviate the situation, the authors warn. That too could further erode Israel’s position. The INSS proposes such measures as building a port in Gaza and improving the infrastructure.
These are palliatives aimed at pacifying the population, but that do nothing to address Israel’s underlying denial of basic rights to the two million Palestinians corralled into the besieged territory.
These plans represent minor tinkering with the proposals for a Palestinian bantustan that Israelis have debated amongst themselves for decades. Yet the authors of the INSS report see the arrival of the Trump administration as an opportunity to market these discredited notions as “innovative ideas.”
Should they gain traction, it will be up to advocates for Palestinian rights to expose them for what they are: an effort to consolidate and rebrand Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, to stem the deterioration in Israel’s international standing.
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