Good news travels slowly
Here’s a Jewish joke I just made up: The pro-Israel activist goes to see a doctor. The doctor says, “I have some good news and some bad news.” The pro-Israel activist says, “Just give me the bad news.”
If that made you smile, even a little, then you probably read a lot of Jewish websites or the fund-raising letters that come from Jewish organizations. The tone is relentlessly gloomy. They portray an Israel that is besieged militarily, isolated diplomatically, divided internally. Even the good news is served with a dose of medicine. “Sure, Israel is a leader in science, technology, and agriculture,” they’ll acknowledge, before adding, “That’s the story the media won’t tell you.” The underlying message of Zionist education in day schools and Hebrew schools is “The whole world is against us—Celebrate Israel!”
Of course, we’re gloomy for a reason. Every day brings another attempt to isolate Israel. Last week the Teachers Union of Ireland called for an academic boycott of Israel. Students at UC Santa Barbara debated a resolution calling on the university to divest from companies that profit from Israeli “apartheid.” At its latest meetings, the United Nations General Assembly took time out from not dealing with the Syria crisis to pass 22 resolutions against Israel.
But what if I were to tell you that things are not as bad as they seem? Better yet, what if I quoted an Israeli academic far more qualified than I to tell you that things are not as bad as they seem?
Just in time for Israel’s 65th birthday, Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), has released a monograph titled “Israel Is Not Isolated.” His report acknowledges the international boycott and divestment (BDS) campaign, the hostility of many European NGOs and media outlets, and the relentless anti-Israel legal campaign known as “lawfare.” But looking back at the bad old days of the Mideast oil crisis, and surveying improvements since the end of the Cold War, Inbar is able to conclude that “the greater isolation apprehended by many is primarily impressionist…. In fact, Israel’s international status has improved since the height of its isolation in the 1970s.”
The proof is to be found in diplomatic and trade relations among Israel and the rest of the world. “At the end of 2012, Israel had diplomatic relations with 156 states out of 193 U.N. members,” Inbar relates. According to one index of successful global integration, that puts Israel in 30th place among 166 countries. These friendly countries include all of the former Soviet bloc states and most of the “Afro-Asian” states. Perhaps more significant are Israel’s relationships with the key international players, including Russia, India, China, and, of course, the United States.
Inbar even finds some cause for optimism in the Muslim world. He cites the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the fact that most Arab countries appear to support the 2002 Arab League Peace Initiative. “While this peace plan is not reasonable from an Israeli perspective,” writes Inbar, “the Arabs are talking peace, not war.”
Inbar acknowledges that BDS gets a lot of attention, and that the crusade to delegitimize Israel has taken root within the U.N. Committee for Human Rights and hostile NGOs. However, BDS has met with only “limited success.” No major American university has divested from Israel, for example (indeed, while UC Santa Barbara debated BDS, the student government at UC Riverside rescinded a call to divest). And Israel’s economy and trade continue to flourish despite all the calls for economic pressure.
Compare these failures of the BDS campaign with Israel’s robust participation in international organizations. In 2010, Israel joined the exclusive Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and last year became an associate member of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Even the U.N. has become “less hostile,” according to Israeli diplomats: Since 2000, Israel has regained membership in some key U.N. working groups and has “become more intensively involved in the work of U.N. agencies”—unthinkable during the “Zionism is racism” era.
None of these improvements happened in a vacuum. Inbar, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, credits the disappearance of the USSR and concurrent rise of American power, the decline of Arab oil clout, and, sadly but inarguably, “the challenge of terrorism and/or radical Islam in the post 9/11 era.” Western countries especially turn to Israel for its expertise in security and intelligence.
Is all this good news getting you nervous? Inbar feels your pain. “Old” Europe, with the possible exception of France, Germany, and Italy, is reflexively pro-Palestinian. The apparent decline of American power is troubling news for its closest ally in the Middle East. And the rise of Islamism, the Iranian nuclear threat, and upheavals following the Arab Spring are wild cards, jeopardizing “an acceptance, however reluctant, of Israel as a fait accompli in the region.”
Inbar’s analysis doesn’t lead him to any grand policy conclusions, only a recommendation that Israel remain alert to “worst-case scenarios.” He barely mentions the Palestinian conflict, although there’s enough ammunition in his brief paper to support the Left or the Right. But it’s refreshing to consider that things aren’t as bad as we think they are. For a Jew, anyway, that’s almost a definition of happiness.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.