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Guest Post: Implications of Declining Israeli Sympathy

August 15, 2014

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Elena Vann is an interdepartmental intern at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Once a small, noble state heralded for its democratic values and established after the horrors of the Holocaust, Israel’s popularity is declining as global public opinion trends further away from the David and Goliath narrative once commonly attached to the Jewish state. After a fierce, month-long offensive against Hamas that is estimated to have taken the lives of over one thousand civilians in Gaza and decimated the country’s infrastructure, Israel’s public image joins the list of damages. As the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire tenuously holds between Israeli and Palestinian officials representing Hamas, the Gaza Strip is smoldering in ruins and Israel looks more bully than victim. Should these negative sentiments toward Israel continue to fester, U.S.-Israel relations could be substantially weakened.

The fraying public opinion of Israel has the potential to arouse a number of damaging responses through civil and state action. The Campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)—a global movement with numerous Israeli members—attempts to increase economic and political pressure on the Israeli government to meet their three goals: end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, grant full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and fulfill the right of return Palestinian refugees displaced persons, as stipulated in the 1948 UN Resolution 194. Since its founding in 2005, and particularly since the launch of Operation Protective Edge, the BDS movement has expanded in reach and popularity, even inciting increased Jewish support. The fact that Jews are protesting the actions of their own state should be an indicator that something is terribly wrong with Israeli policy—a sentiment noted in a recent Globescan/Pipa report (Figure 1). With the state of public outcry, Israel has the potential to be perceived as an Pariah state, which could force it to submit to international calls for drastic policy changes in Palestine.

While the BDS movement will not end the Palestinian occupation in Israel, public opinion could—sooner or later—influence shifts in state policy toward Israel. The United States, among other countries and international bodies, could distance themselves from Israel or even implement sanctions against it. For decades, the United States has shown unwavering support and ignored or obscured the dark side of Israel’s policy toward Palestine. The time to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses and to international law has come.

Five years ago it would have been unthinkable to refer to Israel in such negative terms. However, the surge in social media as an alternative to major news outlets has blown the long-established portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to bits. Since the start of the conflict on June 6, social media has been dominated by footage of dead and injured Palestinians, including women, children and the elderly. These horrific images have ignited global outrage toward Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that has manifested itself in the hashtags #GazaUnderAttack and #FreePalestine, as well as massive protests across Europe and the United States, Israel’s biggest ally.  As it stands, the Palestinian death toll has reached 1,938, which Gaza hospital officials have said is comprised of mainly civilians. This has shocked many in comparison to the sixty-seven Israeli casualties—sixty-four soldiers, two civilians, and one foreign national. As the world becomes increasingly receptive to the Palestinian plight, it is likely that mounting tensions could grow large enough to delegitimize Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank.

While Europe, outside of Germany, is historically less aligned with Israel, the typically strong U.S.-Israeli relations are becoming more complicated as the Obama administration’s ties to the Netanyahu government sour. The frustrations between the two heads of states are old news, however, since Netanyahu’s 2010 defiance of U.S. demands to freeze new settlements in the West Bank, and Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran. Operation Protective Edge, however, has intensified the strain after anonymous Israeli attacks against U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the July 30 IDF strike of a UN school in Gaza were met with fierce backlash from the State Department, referring to the events as “offensive” and “disgraceful.”  In response, the White House and State Department have tightened the reins on weapons transfers and are blocking certain missile shipments to Israel.

As the conversation about injustices of the Palestinian occupation has become more mainstream and American youth increasingly support Palestine, it is clear that Israel—outside of Congress—is no longer the consensus issue it once was. Today, protests against Israel’s discriminatory laws and policies, and the intrinsic humanitarian issues tied to Zionism, are a regular occurrence.

After stating their desire to become a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Palestinian political leaders from Hamas and the Fatah party, now have an unprecedented chance to demand an investigation into possible war crimes perpetrated by the IDF in Gaza since 2012. “Israel,” stated Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, “has left us with no other option.” Since their recognition in 2012 by the UN as a sovereign state with nonmember observer status, Palestine now has a greater chance of being accepted to the ICC provided it signs and ratifies the Rome Statute. The Palestinian Authority has asked Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to sign the document as well, and both organizations are expected to do so. Should this happen and public opinion continues to wane, Israel may find itself feeling the added pressure of the global shift in sympathies to make real changes to its policies and actions in Gaza and the West Bank. Responding to the same pressure, the United States may eventually concede to distancing itself politically and economically from its old ally.