Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 April 2010
Issue No. 992
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In Focus:

Galal Nassar

The limits of Israeli infiltration

Differences between the West and Israel form at least a narrow corridor for the Arabs to exploit, writes Galal Nassar

That Israel's relations with the West have entered a completely new phase is easy to spot. Britain, author of the Balfour Declaration, has expelled an Israeli diplomat over the use of forged British passports in the assassination of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai several weeks ago. Tensions between London and Tel Aviv have rarely been allowed to spill into the open. Yet in the course of this unprecedented diplomatic flare-up an Israeli Knesset member referred to the British as "dogs or even worse, since at least dogs are loyal".

France, also angered by Israel's use of forged French passports, has taken the matter to court. But even aside from the barely suppressed French and British fury over the Al-Mabhouh incident, European-Israeli relations have begun to worsen. Evidence to this effect can be seen in the increasingly frequent visits by European officials and politicians to Gaza in order to plead for the lifting of the Israeli blockade and in the suits being brought against alleged Israeli war criminals in European courts. Mounting European intolerance of Israeli injustices against the Palestinians has also been expressed in resolutions against the apartheid wall and in the European Court of Justice ruling that products originating from Israeli settlements are not entitled to the same preferential treatment accorded to Israeli products under the European Community-Israeli Association Agreement. Europe's academic community has attempted to boycott Israel universities based in the occupied territories. However, perhaps the sharpest European slap was the European Parliament's recent endorsement of the Goldstone Report, accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza.

Even US-Israeli relations, which have long been much closer and more critical to Israel's political, military and economic strength, have begun to show signs of strain. Israel's persistent refusal to halt settlement construction has been the source of sharp dispute and the occasional angry exchange between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations. The most significant development in this regard is the statement issued by the senior US commander in the Middle East to the effect that Israeli behaviour is endangering US interests in the region and, not least American aims in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to leaks to the press, dissatisfaction with Israeli policies in Washington has reached the point where the idea of imposing a US military mandate over Gaza is being floated as the only way to rescue the Palestinians from Israeli practices.

There is a qualitative shift in Israeli-Western relations. No longer is Israel to be treated as the coddled and cosseted child whose every wish is indulged, who is never punished for its wrongs and whose faults are blamed on the Arabs who must have forced Israel into bullying them by attempting to pressure it and isolate it diplomatically. For the first time Western nations have begun to openly censure Israel for its more flagrant injustices rather than maintaining the diplomatic silence of the past. This is a marked departure from an overall policy that included collaborating with Israeli aggression (as occurred in the tripartite invasion of Egypt in 1956), supplying Israel with arms and other material support, and defending it in every international forum from even the mildest criticism.

The shift in Western official stances towards Israel is not entirely altruistic. The West increasingly finds itself in the position of having to try to rein in Israeli excesses which have tainted its reputation by association and jeopardised Western governments' political influence and material interests in the region. It is no longer the case that Western powers can do pretty much as they please. They face serious competition from emerging international powers, such as China, which has extended its hand to the region not as a potential coloniser or aggressor, but in peace and towards the promotion of mutual interests.

Western governments are also facing mounting pressure from public opinion at home, which is growing more and more incensed at Israeli outrages against the Palestinians and at their governments' active or passive condoning of this behaviour. Western publics once formed a solid basis of support for Israel, because of a combination of their horror at what the Jews had suffered at the hands of the Nazis and because there was so little to counter the propaganda that portrayed Israel as the victim instead of the aggressor. Today a flood of information jars with the conventional pro-Israel narrative, contributing to shaping a new awareness in the West of core conflict in this region. As this awareness has broadened and Israeli behaviour came under closer scrutiny Israeli lobbies in the West began to lose their sway while, allowing other voices began to have their say, making it increasingly possible for governments to criticise Israel and lending impetus behind actions intended to restrain it.

One of the more salient traits of the new phase in Israeli-Western relations is that disputes have been allowed to bubble to the surface. This reflects a tendency on the part of the West to stop regarding Israel as an extension of itself and, instead, view it as an independent entity to be treated in the language of interests that applies to the West's relations with other countries and regions. Official attitudes in the West towards Israel are currently at the intersection between aversion to Israeli behaviour and fear of how that behaviour might impact on Western interests in the region, interests they once thought would best be served through the creation of the Israeli state.

The new phase in Western relations with Israel begs important questions. Do recent developments offer any indication that the West senses its support for Israel has become so detrimental to its own interests that it would be better to withdraw it? Or are we witnessing no more than an attempt to bring Israel to heel without opening a strategic breach? What openings or leeway do current circumstances offer the Arabs in their decades-long conflict with the Zionist enterprise?

The founding of the state of Israel must be seen within the framework of Western attempts to reorganise their affairs in the aftermath of World War II and arrange the situation in the Arab world accordingly. The creation of Israel was a Western objective. It has even been suggested that one of the reasons Western powers approved the creation of the Arab League before Arab states had obtained their full independence was that they believed the organisation could be transformed into a vehicle for obtaining collective Arab concessions towards Israel. It is precisely because Israel was made to serve Western ends in the region that the defence of Israel and support for its military superiority has formed an integral part of the West's long-term strategic vision for the region. Britain drew up its military plans in World War I with this objective in mind and made support for the Zionist enterprise one of its strategic priorities until the end of World War II. Following Israel's declaration of statehood in 1948, European countries hastened to contribute to the development of Israel's military, economic and political might without exception. That aid included assistance in the development of Israel's nuclear programme until it could produce its own nuclear weapons, which in strategic terms meant the West was committed to the existence of Israel in perpetuity. Washington's assumption of the role of Israeli sponsor signalled America's intent to pursue the same strategic vision as Britain and France. This was translated into a special strategic alliance between the US and Israel and such huge material and political support for Israel's military dominance in the Middle East that it sometimes seems commitment to Israel's military superiority is the only pillar of Washington's regional strategy.

Yet the edifice is not as unshakable as it might appear. It has begun to undergo subtle changes, partly as a consequence of Israel's failure to perform the very functions that it was created for, and partly because of a growing dissociation between Western and Israeli interests. The Gulf war of the 1990s was launched precisely because Israel was no longer capable of undertaking missions such as that launched in 1967 to undermine Egypt's attempts to assert its independence and halt the drive to build a strong Arab order. That the US had to take to the field and, moreover, prevent Israel from officially taking part in the operations, in deference to the sensitivities of Washington's Arab partners in the coalition against Iraq, was a nail in the coffin of Israel's strategic importance to Western interests in the Middle East. A decade and a half later Israel was charged with the task of eliminating Hizbullah as part of the Bush administration's plans to redraw the map of the Middle East. In spite of all the military and economic support, and the diplomatic coverage it needed to prolong the engagement in Lebanon, Israel failed miserably, calling into question its strategic value.

There is also a new type of divergence between Israel and the West over the question of Israeli settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Western nations have come to the virtually unanimous conclusion that the perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict is no longer in Western interests, whether because of the rise of regional powers that have been able to capitalise on Zionist extremism or because of Israeli practices that stir anti-Western sympathies in this region. Israel's refusal to make the necessary gestures to restart the negotiating process has, for the time, stirred official acknowledgement in the West that it is Israel, not the Arabs, that is the major obstacle to peace.

As sharp as the differences may be between the West and Tel Aviv, there is nothing to indicate withdrawal of Western support for the Zionist enterprise. The current storm, if we can call it that, between Israel in the West, is of a much more benign nature. The West is losing patience with an intractable Israel that refuses to safeguard its own existence while simultaneously allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state in order to defuse Arab anger and frustration which is so readily mobilised against Western interests.

It is unlikely that the differences will spiral out of control. Still, they do present an opportunity for the Arabs to gain some political leverage while continuing to chip away at the diplomatic, media, political and economic stays of the Zionist enterprise. The Arabs should avail themselves of every opportunity to expose the Western public to the abuse of Palestinian rights, the suffering caused by the blockade on Gaza, the illegality of Israeli settlement construction, the drive to Judaise Jerusalem and other such long-standing issues that have now become the substance of discord between the West and Tel Aviv. This is clearly the time to work to generate public awareness abroad that will lend momentum to Western governments' resolve to end these injustices.

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