A peace deal won’t end delegitimization of Israel

Much of the criticism has nothing to do with resolving the Palestinian conflict

At a recent symposium at the Institute for National Security Studies with the editors of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, there was broad agreement that while the BDS movement in the US has not yet had a noticeable effect on Israel, the problem is one of changed mindsets that will have an impact down the road. The atmosphere on college and university campuses across the country is poisoning the minds of students with a blind hatred of Israel – an “Israel fetish,” as co-editor Gabriel Noah Brahm put it – where Israel is portrayed as the root of all evil in the world and directly responsible for the negative phenomena we witness.

But how much of the growing international effort to delegitimize the State of Israel is about the Palestinian conflict? Can we expect the drive to delegitimize Israel to dissolve if Israel were to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians?

Certainly the answer to this question is irrelevant to the urgency of Israel’s need to work toward a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Israel must labor to resolve the conflict not only because it is what must be done from a humanistic perspective, but it is also critical to Israel’s security. Moreover, any consequent gain Israel earns in international public opinion would be a welcome benefit that enhances its national security and its position among the international community.

Indeed, it seems very likely that a negotiated resolution to the conflict – as opposed to imposed solutions or unilateral measures – would weaken initiatives to delegitimize Israel, reduce the numbers of proponents and activists of the BDS movement, and take much of the wind out of their sails.

Nonetheless, there should be no illusions that the hard core of the delegitimization activity would dissipate and move on to a different humanitarian or political cause. “Continuity of purpose” among Israel detractors is to be expected because much of the delegitimacy furor is swept up by anti-Israel fervor, rather than objective concern for the plight of the Palestinians. Recurrent statements by cultural critics and political thinkers that question the relevance, need, and legitimacy of a Jewish state are only one indication of the magnitude of the problem. Put plainly, this type of sentiment has nothing to do with a resolution of the Palestinian conflict.

As such, even if the Palestinian issue is resolved, the delegitimization sentiment will persist, with efforts almost certainly continuing under the guise of other issues and concerns. With an infrastructure already in place and proven experience in global activity, channeling efforts to other issues that are at the heart of Israel’s domestic and international security would be a natural next step.

Take, for instance, the Iranian nuclear issue. There is a strong trend in the overall debate on this issue that directly points the accusing finger at Israel, rather than Iran. Ignoring the vast differences between Israel (defensively oriented, with a solid 40 plus-year record of restraint and responsibility in the nuclear realm) and Iran (blatantly violating a clear commitment, and lying about it for decades, while aggressively provoking its neighbors and rejecting Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state), these detractors ask why Iran is challenged when Israel is the “true” regional menace? On the Iranian nuclear front, the pattern is similar to the sentiment that fuels the attacks on Israel on the Palestinian issue: Israel is necessarily the guilty party, and don’t bother us with the facts. This boils down to an anti-Israel stance rather than genuine concern for nuclear disarmament.

Those who in recent years have discovered that it is no longer politically incorrect to spout anti-Israel and often anti-Semitic tropes will find other targets for their fierce anti-Israel rhetoric. The status of Arab citizens of Israel; Israel’s recourse to its superior military power when its civilian population is targeted by inferior Palestinian rockets and missiles; and the demilitarized nature of a future Palestinian state all present ready material – and there are many other potential issues in the offing. Moreover, as last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas made clear, with the steep rise in ant-Semitic incidents in Europe and the United States specifically connected to Operation Protective Edge, the claim that anti-Israelism is divorced from anti-Semitism carries no weight.

In confronting the spiraling efforts at delegitimacy, therefore, we cannot be content to think that a changed Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians will make the problem go away. The rhetoric and ideology that inform the debate on the peace process will not simply disappear: the issue is much bigger than that, and the threat is real and must be fought. What is needed is a strategy for confronting the threat of “anti-Israelism” that is often grounded in anti-Semitism. Any such strategy must not play up anti-Semitism as the explanation for all criticism, or lean on anti-Semitism as a crutch to avoid working toward a peace agreement (“they hate us anyway”). But the strategy must take anti-Semitism as a formative element within anti-Israelism seriously enough that we do not delude ourselves into thinking that a peace agreement with the Palestinians will make the problem go away.

Dr. Emily B. Landau is Senior Research Fellow at INSS, where she heads the Arms Control and Regional Security Program.

Dr. Judith Rosen, who holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Columbia University, is the Editor at INSS.

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