Israel’s identity crisis continues

Israel, Tel Aviv: Thousands of Arabs and left-wing Jewish peace activists protest in the coastal Israeli port of Tel Aviv on June 5, 2010 against the occupation of Palestinian territories, marking the 43rd anniversary of their conquest in the 1967 Six-Day War. (AFP Photo / Jonathan Nackstrand)
A series of high-profile setbacks on the international stage is forcing Israel to re-think its foreign policy strategy, as well as its damaged relationship with its biggest ally, the United States.

Although there are still six months to go in the year, Israel will probably remember 2010 as one of its most challenging 365 days in a long time. Already, Israeli politicians are talking about ways of reversing the damage before it succeeds in permanently alienating Washington.

Israel’s effort to contain the global fallout over its deadly clash with a Gaza-bound humanitarian ship is just the latest in a string of sensational scandals for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Just 20 days into the New Year, senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was found dead at a luxury hotel in Dubai, prompting the local authorities to launch an intensive investigation.

Dubai displayed a surprising knack for detective work, quickly releasing for public consumption a series of passport photos of the alleged hit team, as well as CCTV images that provided a haunting visual narrative of the moments immediately before and after the assassination.

On the basis of their investigation, the Dubai police pointed the finger of blame at Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, with organizing and carrying out the hit.

Israel, adhering to its internal security policy, has neither confirmed nor denied it played any role in the murder.

Guilty or not, the incident provoked passions in normally staid diplomatic circles when it was revealed that the killers gained entry into the Arab emirate by using forged passports from a handful of Western capitals. Indeed, Israel seems to be attracting more international scorn over the (alleged) falsification of documents than the murder of Mabhouh, a “terrorist” who Israel accused of organizing weapon deliveries into Gaza.

At least 12 British and eight Irish passports were used in the operation, with the remainder of the bogus documents coming from France, Australia and Germany.

Ireland, following similar decisions by Britain and Australia, announced on Tuesday that it would expel an Israeli diplomat from Dublin.

Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin said yesterday that an investigation had led to "the inescapable conclusion that an Israeli government agency was responsible for the misuse and, most likely, the manufacture of the forged Irish passports associated with the murder of Mr. Mabhouh."

But the ensuing international uproar over the Hamas killing was nothing compared to the deafening roar heard one month later from Washington over what appeared to be Israel’s deliberate snub of US Vice President Joe Biden.

On March 9, Biden was in Jerusalem thumping for Middle East peace and speaking in earnest about Washington’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.”

Just hours after these words, worthy of a champagne toast, were spoken, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, which even former US President George W. Bush was against (During his Whitehall speech in London in November 2003, Bush said "Israel should freeze settlement construction, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people and not prejudice final negotiations with the placements of walls and fences.").

Biden quickly condemned the move as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now,” adding that the announcement “runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.”

Although US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (the chemistry between them could best be described as combustible) have made public overtures at reconciliation, officials say that tensions remain close to the boiling point between the long-term allies.

Indeed, the ongoing Gaza flotilla incident, which led to the death of nine Turkish citizens, had every possibility of sinking the US-Israeli relationship.

Yet following demands by the UN for an international investigation of the incident, Washington sided with Israel, agreeing to an internal investigation of the incident to be overseen by two foreign observers (On a side note, it seems that the only time Israel really invoked the wrath of the Obama White House is when the United States was "humiliated" by the ill-timed announcement of further settlement construction during Biden's visit, which seems to prove that even superpowers suffer severe bouts of vanity at the expense of enemies and allies alike).

This was a huge relief for Israel, which suddenly understands the importance of maintaining healthy relations with Washington. The implications of Israel losing White House support, not to mention that of the international community at large, was the subject of ministerial meeting on Wednesday where Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the assembled delegates that Israel must put forth a "daring and assertive political initiative" in the coming months to emerge from the shell of international isolation of the past year.

A chance for permanent peace?

Ehud Barak said that "the international preoccupation" with Israel in the aftermath of the flotilla crisis emphasizes the need to rebuild ties with the United States, which would include a viable plan for peace with the Palestinians.

"There is no way to rehabilitate ties with the administration without presenting an assertive political program that will address the core issues of a final settlement with the Palestinians,"
Barak told Netanyahu and his other colleagues. "It is necessary to make decisions and take genuine political steps."

"A political initiative will break us out of the isolation and prevent phenomena like the flotillas to the Gaza Strip and international investigations," Barak added.

Israel is facing mounting international calls to lift its Gaza embargo following the killing of nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists who were intercepted in international waters enroute to Gaza by Israeli commandos on May 31.

Israeli leaders said the troops acted in self-defense after being attacked by activists, and that the blockade is necessary to prevent arms smuggling to Hamas.

The question, however, is how the hawkish government of Benjamin Netanyahu, with outspoken firebrands on board, like Deputy Prime Minister Avignor Lieberman, will define a “daring and assertive political initiative.” After all, this hardly sounds like a call for submissiveness before the mighty throne of Washington, nor is it possible to imagine Netanyahu agreeing to such a position.

On the other hand, “daring and assertive” may be taken to mean daring and assertive from the standpoint of Israel’s internal political landscape. Indeed, any attempt to create a viable Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as the capital, would have to be “daring and assertive” to win over the hearts and minds of the Israeli people. Netanyahu would emerge from such a political battle as a hero to some, and a traitor to others. But such is the nature of any tough political decision.

And with the six-month settlement construction freeze in East Jerusalem set to expire in September, the choice for Netanyahu is coming down to one of political survival.

“One reason Barak is trying to convince Netanyahu and the other ministers of the need for change is the growing pressure from within the Labor Party,” Haaretz, the Israeli daily wrote on Wednesday. “Ministers from the Labor Party including Isaac Herzog and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer have questioned whether the party should remain in the coalition if the political standstill continues.”

It should be noted that Ehud Barak, who is currently the head of the Labor party, could present the Likud party of Netanyahu a dramatic setback if the former decides to break away.

On Wednesday, Israel Radio announced the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in response to global criticism of the blockade, “may expand a list of about 100 goods that Israel permits through its crossings into the Gaza Strip,” a territory run by Hamas Islamists.

Although few would call such a move “daring and assertive,” it would certainly represent a start in the process of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians.

*For news on strained relations between Israel and Turkey, click here

Robert Bridge, RT