Israel must understand how it lost the support of its friends

Israel must understand how it lost the support of its friends

Israel must understand how it lost the support of its friends
People inspect the damage after the Israeli bombardment of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Apr. 16, 2024. (AFP)
Short Url

The chorus of a very popular Israeli song that topped the charts for weeks goes as follows: “The whole world is against us. Don’t worry, we’ll overcome. They don’t care about us. Don’t worry, we’ll manage.” Despite the gloomy nature of these lyrics, it has a very cheerful tune and, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Israeli music, this is not a new song written in response to Oct. 7 and criticizing the way Israel is conducting the war in Gaza, but one that was written 55 years ago.

Yes, this sentiment is deeply ingrained in Israeli society, allowing a master manipulator like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his like in the populist far right to exploit it for their personal and political interests and reject any criticisms that originate from abroad.

This sense of fear and vulnerability among many in Israel is currently being fueled by an ultranationalistic and opportunistic government that keeps driving home the message that Israel can do no wrong and all those who criticize it either do not understand the grave dangers Israel is facing, do not care about this or are simply antisemites who want to see the state destroyed.

Without taking anything away from the severity of the atrocities it committed on Oct. 7, from the moment Hamas began to be repeatedly described by top Israeli officials and others as a Nazi movement — and the people of Gaza as active or at least passive collaborators — the death and devastation inflicted on Gazans by the Israeli armed forces has become justified and legitimized in the eyes of most Israelis. Moreover, Israeli media seldom shows the horrors in Gaza, hence it is easier for many to remain willingly oblivious to it and show no sympathy for the great suffering of their Palestinian neighbors.

It is not that all criticism leveled against Israel is necessarily correct, fair or beyond reproach. But much of it is legitimate and constructive and, had its government heeded it, Israel’s international standing would have been in much better shape and might have led to some strategic achievements in the war with Hamas.

It was US President Joe Biden who, at the beginning of the war, knew in his heart of hearts that Israel under Netanyahu, who depends on the dangerous presence of the messianic-religious far right for his political survival, was not about to take a measured approach with a strategic horizon. Instead, it would react with disproportionate force in a rush of anger, revenge and a drive to deter not only Hamas but the entire region from daring to repeat what Hamas did. And it would do that in the most simplistic and crude manner.

In his visit to Israel only days after Oct. 7, Biden warned the country’s leadership not to make the same mistakes as the US did in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, observing that “those horrors have tapped into some kind of primal feeling in Israel just like it did in the United States. Shock, pain, rage. An all-consuming rage.” Such a warning was prophetic, yet such an outcome could have been prevented by the very person who expressed that fear. Nevertheless, within a very short time, which by now feels like an eternity, Israel has experienced an unprecedented loss of international support because it ignored the warnings of Biden and others.

It feels almost inappropriate to speak of a PR battle in a war in which so many thousands of people have lost their lives and many more have been injured and deeply traumatized, while hundreds of thousands have also lost their homes, their belongings and probably their hope for a better future. However, in the sad reality of modern warfare, the battle to win over public opinion is crucial and Israel started from a position where it would have been unimaginable to lose this battle.

The international community showed sympathy and support and genuinely wanted to embrace the Israeli people in their time of great anguish, while those who were rejoicing at the massacre it suffered at the hands of Hamas were a very small minority and were rightly silenced. Yet, six months later, Israel, by its reckless approach to the lives of ordinary Palestinians in Gaza, including thousands of children, has reversed this broad international support and also alienated those who are traditionally and instinctively its friends and allies. Instead of consolidating support for the country, Netanyahu’s government has made it almost untenable to maintain it.

Staggeringly, this has upset and angered many Israelis, and not only the prime minister’s political opponents, who cannot accept that a just war could involve killing more than 33,000 people, the vast majority of whom have committed no acts of militancy against Israel. One cannot maintain the backing of the world when one treats an entire territory and its people as collateral damage in a war with one’s enemies, repeatedly displaces them and denies them access to humanitarian aid to the point of starvation and with no access to medical aid.

It is especially unsustainable for those countries that are providing the weaponry and the ammunition that enables this to happen, first and foremost because such aid cannot be justified when it is turned against civilians, but also because it makes these enablers complicit in what one day might be deemed by the International Court of Justice to be war crimes or even genocide.

Israel has experienced an unprecedented loss of international support because it ignored the warnings.

Yossi Mekelberg

Furthermore, in an age of around-the-clock media coverage, the horror of what is taking place in Gaza is being witnessed by millions of viewers worldwide. The pressure on governments to make their support for Israel conditional on stopping the killings and the destruction has become inevitable.

Whether or not Israelis approve or appreciate it, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict always enters into the domestic politics of many countries and, when it flares up the debate around this, it can become extremely toxic and at times threaten to descend into actual violence. Israel can only ignore this at its own peril.

When the war is over and the inevitable investigation is held into the failures that allowed the disaster of Oct. 7 and the nature of Israel’s response, some attention should also be paid to the need for Israel to understand how it has lost this PR battle so quickly and at such a cost to the country.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view