Adrian Hamilton: Israel had few enough friends to start with

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:56

Is Israel's assault on the Gaza flotilla the moment which historians will look back on and see the point when international support for the nation began to change and the its government could no longer rely on the West to see it through right or wrong?

There are plenty of people calling for such a change and even some who believe it might happen. As with North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe, so the international community (however defined) demands that something be done, the UN meets in disapproval and there are outraged calls for sanctions against the offending state. And as with those states, the world, in frustration, demands that the country with greatest influence forces its ally to come back into line. In North Korea's case, it is China which is supposed to lend its offices to bringing the rogue state to heel. In Israel's case, it is the United States. And, as in those cases, the calls have resulted in precious little except a change in tone. Washington, which has been so keen that Beijing act in North Korea, is unwilling to do the same with Jerusalem.

Partly for the same reason. The White House will get irritated with Israeli actions, finding them inconvenient to its broader international interest, as China does with North Korea. It will put pressure on Israel to show a bit more moderation in its behaviour. But in the end its commitment to the country is too great, its support within Washington too strong and the administration's fear of instability in the region too great to change policy.

It may seem excessive to lump Israel in with rogue states such as North Korea. But to the international community it poses the same problem. Its secretive nuclear arms policy makes it impossible to develop – as the meeting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories in New York has wished – a weapons-free Middle East. Its absolutist view of its security requirements, as the blockade of Gaza has illustrated, makes it resistant to any outside pressure from the UN, Europe or even the US to moderate its actions.

Resistant or totally impervious? Without taking any bets on the optimistic outcome (the optimists always lose in the Middle East), it is possible to see certain shifts in the balance of forces around the Palestinian issue on which Israel's boarding of the aid ships could act.

One is within Israel itself. Three fruitless military ventures in Lebanon, the invasion of Gaza and now the botched attack on the flotilla have dented the country's proud reputation for total military superiority.

This cuts both ways, of course. It has hardened the sense of encirclement among the public and promoted the view within the military that the nation needs to re-assert its dominance by a firm act such as bombing Iran's nuclear facilities or invading Gaza a second time. The fault, the hardliners feel, has been not so much with the intentions but the conduct of the operations.

On the other hand, the military failures of the past decade could finally put some new life into the peace movement within the country and into those who argue for a political solution to the Palestinian question. It is easy to forget, in all the international exasperation with the Israelis' unconcerned pursuit of military "solutions" to every perceived threat, that the country is a democracy.

The growing world condemnation of its actions – and more especially the rising unease among Jews abroad – may reinforce a sense that present policies are leading the country down a blind alley. After a decade of popular dismissal, even contempt, for the peace movements, there's admittedly not much sign of this. But political moods can change, not least at times of national humiliation, and it would be wrong for those outside to dismiss or ignore the forces for change within.

Even without change within, this week's fiasco is bound to affect the international climate for Israel. Five years ago, debates in Europe, the US and places like Japan could take place in an atmosphere of outright favour to Israel, whether one was talking trade deals or military assistance. After Gaza it is becoming more difficult, and the return of arrested activists, taking to the airwaves in their home countries, will not help. It is possible now, even in Washington, to voice outright criticism of Israel in a way that simply didn't occur a few years ago.

But the biggest change may yet be felt in the Muslim world. Much has been made of Turkey's fury with Israel. Given that it is the one Muslim nation in military co-operation with the country, it is a blow. But a distancing between the two was well under way before this latest affair. Turkey, for its own reasons (as with Russia), is anxious to play a part in the Muslim world and is forging alliances with Syria, Iraq and even Iran that provide a new dynamic in the region. At the very least it makes it more difficult for the Arab countries to look the other way.

None of this is going to revolutionise the situation. America's Arab clients such as Egypt and Jordan will remain in its thrall, still fighting the religious revival that threatens their regimes. The West will continue to lean heavily in Israel's favour. The most immediate impact of the bloody Israeli raid will be to pile up the pressure for an easing of the blockade on Gaza. Israel will accede to more humanitarian deliveries, if nothing else to keep Washington off its back.

But it won't reverse policy on Gaza or its state of "war" with Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran. Nor will Europe change tack on Hamas or do what it should do and disband the "Quartet" of the EU, UN, Russia and America, although their efforts to build up a potential Palestinian state in the West's (and Israel's) own image have palpably failed. Tony Blair has enough alternative sources of income to do without it, after all. He has spent much and achieved nothing but make the Fatah-Hamas Palestinian split more destructive to their cause.

But there is a different mood in the air about Israel and its actions. This week won't alter the pieces on the board but it may just push along changes already in motion.

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