Israel's Diplomatic Isolation

Even though it shares the same island with some of the most imaginative theatrical talent in the world, the United Nations prefers comforting, dull, tedious repetition to interesting, unexpected, dramatic surprise. That is especially true when it comes to Israel, which is always cast in the role of villain and for which matters are therefore certain to end unhappily.

Thus, every year the UN General Assembly approves resolutions highly unfavorable to Israel by huge majorities, often with only Israel, the United States, and a trusted ally like Palau voting against and a few European stragglers abstaining. On occasion, the Security Council will meet in emergency session to consider an alleged crime against humanity committed by Israel; the Council chamber is filled to capacity with delegates and spectators, many heated speeches are given, and Israel is saved from condemnation only by the threat or exercise of the U.S. veto.

In 2006, the anti-Israel UN Human Rights Commission was replaced by the newly minted UN Human Rights Council. But to the shock and wonderment of absolutely no one, the new HRC turns out to be just like the old HRC, spending most of its time criticizing Israel, or preparing for conferences like Durban II that are political free-fire zones against Israel.

These and similar set pieces have become so commonplace they rarely receive much U.S. media coverage; most Americans have simply and understandably lost interest in the clichéd theater of the United Nations. In the world outside the United States, the story is very different. Even the most heavily scripted, unspontaneous, and intolerably pedantic UN meetings generate substantial press attention abroad, and that press attention, in turn, adds to the growing sense that Israel is among the most solitary nations on the face of the earth.

Nor does that isolation seem limited to the UN's chilly corridors. Israelis are concerned about a growing estrangement from the nations of the European Union (EU)--not just a lack of substantive support from Western Europe, but an acute lack of the warmth and empathy that was directed toward the Jewish state from the continent in earlier days. Even more profoundly, Middle Eastern hostility to Israel's creation and continued existence is now reinforced by the growth of a radically politicized, militant Islamism. And the new administration in Washington has already demonstrated that it will not match its predecessor's sense of connection to the democratic bright light in the Middle East. If America's responses to the threats before Israel, such as Iran's nuclear weapons program, prove less robust, will Israel find itself in a circumstance in which it will have only its own will and capabilities to rely upon?

Israel's protection against existential threat begins at home.

These are legitimate questions, but fortunately, the answers are not as clear as they might seem to distressed friends and frightened supporters of Israel. Unquestionably, Israel's diplomatic position is different from earlier times, but a dispassionate analysis suggests that it is not necessarily worse--if, that is, the standard for judgment is not Israel's popularity but rather its ability to maneuver and function as an actor of moment in the international community.

Most important, even in the midst of economic crisis, the United States is far stronger than it was at the Cold War's height, both comparatively and absolutely. Neither the United States nor Israel can be defeated in conventional military hostilities by any conceivable coalition of adversaries. There are, to be sure, acute, even existential threats caused by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the spread of international terrorism, but the problems of the 1950s and the 1960s are over. That is unequivocally good news.

And yet Israel still suffers emotionally from the slings and arrows aimed at it. A significant cause of the angst is the entirely understandable sentiment that after all the difficulties Israel has faced over its 61 years, there should come a point where it is "accepted," after which its singular external troubles will subside. This is a very European sentiment, both feudal and social-democratic in its roots, resting on the idea that stability is the norm and threat the exception. Unfortunately, however, neither for Israel, nor the United States, nor anyone else, is there one fixed point of stability or safety that can be reached. Such a point simply does not exist. The nations of Western Europe, however, seem intent on believing otherwise.

Israel's chief external strength, its closeness to the United States, may be ironically responsible for some aspects of Western Europe's diplomatic turn against it. Whether at the United Nations or elsewhere, the nations of Western Europe know that Israel will not be politically eviscerated by resolutions or actions because the United States will intervene before terrible damage can be done. In the tedious business of drafting resolutions, ministerial statements, or press communiqués, most EU foreign ministries know that the United States will do the heavy lifting--and shoulder the blame from Israel's adversaries--in order to achieve acceptable verbiage.

The certainty of American action has freed Western Europeans from bearing any diplomatic responsibility in relation to Israel. They need not demonstrate sympathy for Israel's position, even if they might be inclined to feel such sympathy. Indeed, it is clear that the central American role has granted them precious liberty to cast a free vote--a vote they can use for their own political purposes, both domestic and international.

This attitude is desperately painful for Israelis, especially older ones, many of whom cannot help but hark back to the two decades following World War II. Europe then seemed both viscerally and operationally more engaged with Israel; indeed, at the time, the collectivist convictions of many Israeli leaders and the country's socialist domestic policies generated more empathy from like-minded Europeans than from the determinedly individualistic and capitalist United States. Kibbutzim? Not in Kansas, Dorothy. Indeed, in certain sectors of the American Right, Israel's original ideological path was a generator of a hostility that still burns today, even as the country is moving to supplant its socialist economy with a system that more closely approximates the free market. In those halcyon days, among leftist elites in Europe's great capitals, Israel looked like a chip off the old block.

That was then. Whatever commonality European socialists might once have felt with Israelis has long since passed. Even more important, Western European guilt about the depths of anti-Semitic sentiment across the continent and the role it played in stoking the flames of the Holocaust has all but dissipated. Monuments, memorial ceremonies at cemeteries, and obligatory passages in official speeches are all that remain.

Just as Europe's gratitude to America for liberating it from fascism only lasted so long, so too with the continent's sense of guilt about what took place on its soil and in its name. And neither gratitude nor guilt will be motivating factors in European policy anytime soon.

Israel's estrangement from Western Europe is one of the most pronounced diplomatic markers of the profound lassitude, the end-of-civilization weariness that has EU members at the UN and other diplomatic venues in its grip. It is beyond my scope here to deal with the causes of this continental fatigue--declining birthrates, aging populations, expensive social welfare programs, immigration--but suffice it to say that their combined effect is overwhelming. Add to that the desire of many Europeans to believe they can now be liberated for all time from transnational conflict, and Israel's Europe problem becomes insoluble. From the European perspective, threats to international comity come not from external hostile forces--for them, such forces barely exist--but rather from seemingly friendly quarters, like the United States and Israel. They believe they are endangered by those nations that have decided (so far) that they cannot afford to fall prey to the false dream of extricating themselves from the world's dangers by remaining in slumber or going prone in the wake of attack.

What Western Europe's ennui and its descent into a fantasy of having moved beyond history demonstrate is that little or nothing will change the continent's attitudes toward the Jewish state. Both Israel and America can and should do diplomatic damage-control with the European Union's member countries to try and ballast Israel's position; that is, after all, what diplomacy is for. But mitigation of Europe's concerns will not be enough to change Europe's course.

Instead, Israel needs to look elsewhere to decrease its isolation. Surprising though it may sound, the prospects for success in other parts of the world are far from dismal. The first place to look is the Middle East, where Iran's growing menace has created significant possibilities for ad hoc alliances of convenience.

Iran's decades-old nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and its role as the central banker of international terrorism, obviously constitute direct, mortal threats to Israel. But not solely to Israel. Other international terrorist groups supported and assisted by Iran, the Taliban and al Qaeda foremost among them, threaten regimes like Pakistan. Arab regimes are increasingly alarmed by the growing implications of Persian aggression. Tehran's support for terrorists is nonsectarian, including both predominantly Sunni groups like Hamas, Taliban, and al Qaeda, as well as Shiite terrorists like Hizballah. Thus, the six oil- and gas-rich members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GC)--among them Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates--fear Iranian support both for dissident Shiite populations in their own countries and for terrorism by other Islamic extremists.

Just as Iran has effectively assumed hegemony over largely Sunni Syria, and through Hizballah now effectively has sway over Lebanon, so too other Sunni Arab countries could be at risk of domination by Iran's allies. In Egypt, the succession crisis that will arise when the eighty-one-year-old Hosni Mubarak passes from the political scene will offer a real opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent of Hamas.

Arab leaders do not wish to become Iranian satellites in the manner of Damascus. Moreover, watching the bullheadedness of radical Palestinian leaders pursuing their own political objectives at the expense of the day-to-day well-being of average Palestinians, more and more Arab leaders now appreciate how much Hamas's agenda stems from Iran's objectives rather than Arab solidarity. One must be careful not to overstate all this--the Arab vs. Persian conflict that now seems to be surfacing is opaque and multifarious, and the political tectonic plates shift frequently. Still, the malevolent role of Iran in the broader Middle East is something from which no Arab leader can afford to avert his eyes.

An Iran with nuclear weapons is a palpable risk not only for Israel, and the Arab states know it. That is what accounts for the mysterious silence on the part of the Arab world in September 2007, when Israel bombed the nearly completed North Korean nuclear reactor on the Euphrates River in Syria. Israel exposed and degraded yet another Middle Eastern clandestine nuclear program, one that could not have come into being without some measure of Iranian support, and the lack of Arab protest was deafening.

Arab states were comparably muted, at least at the outset, during the 2006 Hizballah-Israel war and more recently during Israel's military operation in Gaza. Only when the conflicts dragged on did the iron laws of the anti-Israel catechism require Arab states to join in the condemnation. But make no mistake: in various Arab capitals there was no mourning for the body blows dealt to both Hizballah and Hamas. In the same fashion, should Israel undertake the targeted use of military force against Iran's nuclear program, there will be voiceless thanksgiving in those same capitals.

There is, it would appear, a propitious route for quiet Israeli diplomacy, especially through back channels and unofficial contacts, to seek common ground against the common foe. Among possible areas for fruitful cooperative action are: first, exchanges of intelligence information on dual-use nuclear and ballistic missile trading by Iran; second, common efforts against Iran's terrorist assistance, training and equipping, and financing; and third, establishing notification procedures and mechanisms to reduce subsidiary conflicts in the event of Iran-related hostilities.

Obviously, virtually none of this would ever become public, at least if it is working right. Nor would it change much of the public rhetoric of the Arab states on matters like the Palestinians and Jerusalem. Nonetheless, by shifting the common focus toward defending against Iran, time can be gained during which other breakthroughs might be possible, even if unlikely. At a minimum, shadow diplomacy and cooperation against the common foe could buy breathing time for Israel and the Palestinians to consider alternatives other than the increasingly dead-end "two-state solution."

Another place for Israel to go fishing is within the so-called Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The movement, a Cold War relic initially proposed by Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia comprising nations that sought to associate themselves neither with the United States nor the Soviet Union, is still active at the UN. Sometimes joined by nations in Latin America and Asia, the NAM coalition is now largely made up of African and Arab states. It can and often does constitute an overwhelming voting bloc in the UN General Assembly. Sundering this coalition on key issues is both doable and desirable, and should be a long-term Western goal in the UN and elsewhere.

In 1991, the decisive 1991 General Assembly vote repealing the infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution of 1975 was the direct result of a successful effort to introduce divisions into NAM. It was a difficult and time-consuming task, but in the end, many African nations voted for the 1991 repeal or abstained; Latin America (with the exception most notably of Cuba) also voted to repeal, as did India and other Asian countries. The Arabs were left isolated and defeated.

Working to split the NAM coalition should be a key aspect of Israel's diplomatic strategy going forward (and America's), in hopes of creating new breakthroughs on the model of the "Zionism is racism" repeal. Today, Africa has its own problems with Islamic extremism, on the Mediterranean, in the Sahara, and in the vast Sub-Saharan region.

India, an early leader of the NAM, also has a grave terrorism problem, and could play a role in turning the NAM away from knee-jerk attacks on Israel and toward objectives actually helpful to the citizens of its members. In any event, even occasional political forays behind NAM lines could serve to distract its members from helping Israel's adversaries burn it at the political stake at the UN.

Having the ability to undertake such diplomatic counterattacks does not mean that the anti-Zionist theater at the UN and elsewhere is meaningless. The public abuse that Israel is experiencing along with the accompanying rise of anti-Semitic agitation in Europe undermines the Israeli public's morale. The drumbeat of criticism aimed at delegitimizing its acts of self-defense against terrorism can also deter its political leadership from undertaking other initiatives that might stir up even more criticism.

Nevertheless, recognizing the declining role of former supporters and the surprising rise of new and tricky diplomatic opportunities has to be the real policy for avoiding or at least minimizing the threats to Israel, of which isolation is only one, and by no means the most significant. What has only become more important is the role of the United States, for which there is simply no substitute. This is something Israel's well-wishers must keep firmly in mind, especially in the United States: Israel's protection against existential threat begins at home.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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John R.
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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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