Should Israel Care? Three Reflections on a Question

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November 1, 2011
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Two: Israel’s Interest in Engaging the World

Bradley Burston

The United Nation’s record of unfairness toward Israel is, indeed, monumental. It is so extensive that even Daniel Gordis’ prodigious overview cannot do it justice in the space available. One further example should suffice: the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. So flagrant was its anti-Israel bias, so exclusive and malevolent its focus on the Jewish state, that by 2006, the U.N. itself could take it no more, and dissolved the panel — only to have its successor, the U.N. Human Rights Council, criticized by two U.N. Secretaries-General and the council’s own president for having consistently and disproportionately singled out Israel for condemnation.

It’s only natural, then, for Israelis to want to give up on the U.N., to treat the world body with scorn and suspicion, its decisions regarding the Palestinians seen as little more than missiles aimed at Israel’s very existence.

It’s only natural for Israelis to conclude that the international community is implacably against us, no matter what we do, so we may as well do exactly as we please.

It’s only natural — but not necessarily in Israel’s best interest. It’s only natural — but in the long run, a position that could worsen Israel’s isolation, and in the process demoralize and further polarize the Israeli public.

In a peculiar and unhealthy progression, adopting that type of pariah status — even if the state asserts that the status was forced upon it — allows the state to lose perspective and entertain a false sense of freedom of action. Pariah status is a mindset that can lend support to self-destructive policies and measures such as unbridled settlement construction and the imprudent advocacy of disproportionate military moves.

The sense that Israel is wrong no matter what, can encourage a government to enshrine the status quo. But the status quo to which we are accustomed — of unaddressed Palestinian aspirations for independence amid the unchecked pressures of settlement — has become, in itself, a force clouding Israel’s very future.

At this point, it is in Israel’s best interest to engage the world, to work with the U.N. rather than despite it, to demonstrate flexibility and show initiative. Gordis points to precisely what is in Israel’s best interest when he states that most Israelis understand that a Palestinian state is the only hope to a permanent peace.

What Israelis cannot understand is how to get there. Where the U.N. and the Palestinian issue are concerned, and at a time when peace talks are little more than a memory, Israeli society may be divided into three groups. There are those on the right who, for the sake of a strong, secure Israel, oppose Palestinian statehood. There are those on the left who, for the sake of a strong, secure Israel, believe that a Palestinian state must be established as soon as possible.

Then, by far the largest group, there are the centrists who, for the sake of a strong, secure Israel, want to see two states, but who also feel that their own leaders and those of the Palestinians lack the ability and, more importantly, the genuine desire, to forge a workable peace.

For the time being, the conclusions of that last group are, sadly, correct. Nonetheless, what is crucially important to Israel’s future is where the center of the Israeli political spectrum is headed, and if, in fact, it can be motivated to move toward peace.

Perhaps the most critical point in this regard is one to which Gordis alludes in passing, the question of whether Arab and Muslim states and peoples can ever really accept a Jewish state in their midst, and whether Israel is willing to face down its own extremists.

In the end, the importance of the U.N. decision may lie in helping to catalyze an answer to these excruciating questions. If the harrowing process can paradoxically bring Israel and the Palestinians back to talks, striking a chord of involvement among moderates on both sides, the answer will be yes.

For Israelis, whose lives are a thicket of paradox, the choice will be daunting, but it may ultimately prove unavoidable. The “U.N. Autumn” only underscores the difficulty: In order to separate from the Palestinians, Israel will have to engage them in honest if tough diplomacy; in order to become fully independent, fully in control of its own fate, Israel must engage the U.N. and the world, not withdraw from it, scorn it, or refuse to cooperate with the international community’s sincere efforts for a just peace.

For much of the past year, official Israel has tried to go it alone, feuding even with its indispensible ally, Washington. The experiment was instructive. Going it alone, we now know, gets you nowhere but backward and down.

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Bradley Burston is a columnist for the daily Israeli newspaper Haaretz and senior editor of Haaretz.com. He covered the first Palestinian uprising in Gaza for the Jerusalem Post and was its military correspondent during the 1991 Gulf War, later reporting on Israeli-Arab peace talks for Reuters. He is a recipient of the Eliav-Sartawi Award for Middle East Journalism in the Israeli press, presented at the United Nations in 2006.

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