A difficult week for Israel

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Last week’s conclusion of the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly coincided with two events that have become the cause of much consternation within Israel: the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action “against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,” together with objections raised in the US House of Representatives regarding proposed financial assistance for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense program. However, given the initial response to these developments, there are few, if any, indications that Israel’s government and political establishment are willing to change tack, especially with regard to their treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

This refusal to acknowledge the arguments being put forward by the other side is evident in an op-ed in Israel Hayom, in which Michail Laitman accuses the Durban Conference of “rapidly [becoming] a potent fertilizer in the ground of hatred against Jews and Israel in particular. It is clear that the seeds of antisemitism did not start then, but the forum certainly accelerated and expanded the venomous accusations against Israel as an ‘apartheid state,’ it propelled the delegitimization of the state of Israel and its subsequent boycott through global movements such as BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.)…Zionism also became synonymous with racism, and the Holocaust was portrayed not as an atrocity aimed at destroying European Jewry, but the justification for ‘Israel’s wrongdoings.’”

That opinion is seconded by Kenneth Marcus, also writing for Israel Hayom, accusing the UN of complicity in enabling the “Durbanist approach,” and thus, in his view, helping it further cement discriminatory views and stereotypes: “In light of this history, it is not enough to praise the countries that will boycott Durban IV or to oppose the many more that apparently still plan to participate. Beyond that, we must face the reality that the United Nations has found it necessary to stage yet another major international event to commemorate this grand global travesty. To do that, we must understand why so many still support Durban despite its ugly legacy…. For those who are committed to ending racism, this new anti-racism is a diversion from the real, hard work of civil-rights enforcement. Instead of identifying actual instances of discrimination where people are treated worse because of their race or other group identity, the Durbanist approach is to overhaul our social order, dividing people by their perceived status as oppressor or oppressed. This feeds into racial stereotypes, with Jews viewed in antisemitic terms as privileged, powerful, conspiratorial and controlling.”

Others, albeit critical of the Durban Conference, have called for more engagement and openness. This is the position taken by the Jerusalem Post editorial team, which urges the Israeli government to take its place at the table: “It was a significant diplomatic victory for Israel that 34 countries stayed away from Durban IV, the UN General Assembly session on Wednesday that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the controversial UN World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. But Israel should not rest on its laurels; it must build on and expand what appears to be a growing anti-Durban coalition…. Rather than allowing itself to be portrayed in some parts of the world as ‘a racist, apartheid state,’ Israel and its allies should seize the historical moment and stand together – including the Gulf states with which it recently celebrated the anniversary of the Abraham Accords – to lead the international struggle against racism and religious persecution. Rather than needing to lead a boycott of world conferences on racism, the Jewish state should have a special place at the table.”

In addition to the events associated with the UN General Assembly, discussions and debates in the US House of Representatives were of particular relevance from a regional-security point of view. Here, again, many in Israel saw yet more evidence of the country’s increasing isolation, while others, including Haaretz’ Alon Pinkas, laid the blame squarely at Israel’s feet: “Israel has a new nemesis: the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Israel doesn’t know what this is, exactly, but it already doesn’t like it. These hostile extremist ‘radicals’ and Israel-bashers are threatening U.S. aid to Israel. They are not…. Israel’s approach to progressive Democrats is a case study in dilettantism, laziness and convenient denial of trends in U.S. politics and society. The vote this week on Iron Dome funding is only a symptom.”

The subject of the controversy is last week’s debate in the US Congress, which, based on an analysis by Ron Kampeas, published by the Times of Israel, appears to have divided more than just Congress: “There were two groups of Jewish Democrats working Capitol Hill this week, each leveraging their Jewishness to advance what each believed to be a critical remedy after Israel’s conflict with Hamas in May. Each group was backed by a lobby that claims to speak on behalf of the Jewish community. And each hoped to capture headlines Thursday with major legislation…. Levin announced he was leading a group of lawmakers who wanted to enshrine in US law the two-state solution as the preferred outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That in itself would likely garner broad support among Jewish Democrats, but Levin’s bill also mandates strict oversight of how Israel spends defense assistance, and also bans spending on any project that entrenches Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. [Kathy] Manning, meanwhile, spearheaded the bill approved Thursday that would deliver $1 billion in new money for the Iron Dome, per a request by Israel’s government. Progressives led by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and ‘the Squad’ forced Democrats to remove the same amount of money from a stopgap emergency government funding bill earlier in the week.”

In an op-ed published by Yedioth Ahronoth, Ofer Shelah, a former member of the Knesset, tries to make the case that, unlike the prevailing consensus faulting former PM Netanyahu’s heavy-handed foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States for the current state of disharmony between the US and Israel: “The holdup of $1 billion to replenish the defense systems is not only a result of pressure from progressives or deterioration of ties under Netanyahu, but the reality that many Americans no longer perceive the Jewish state as a brave nation fighting for its existence…. Naftali Bennett’s government needs to understand that the mantra of ‘well, at least we are not Netanyahu,’ is not enough – neither for internal affairs nor for continued ties with the U.S. As for the aid, one day we will have to debate why a country with an annual GDP of a trillion and a half shekels and a military budget over 80 billion shekels still needs to continue to beg for money from countries across the ocean. As long as Israel continues to receive it and base the defense of Israeli citizens around it, we must also be attentive to what is going on in Congress. Sooner or later, ‘the Netanyahu excuse’ will become void.”

There are also those who shift the blame away from Israel’s policies. Instead, as Melanie Phillips points out in this Arutz Sheva op-ed, the disagreements with Israel’s erstwhile allies emerge from a lack of consensus and common vision: “The significance of this episode doesn’t lie with the Iron Dome. It lies instead with what it tells us about the way the Democratic Party is going. For it demonstrates that the influence of this far-left caucus is considerable. The fact that the Israeli funding was removed, albeit temporarily, was a win for the far-left that has put the “moderate” wing on the back foot. It shows that, when it comes to the issue of Israel, the “moderate” leadership can’t control events when they have such a wafer-thin majority. As a result of this victory—although it is merely symbolic—the far-left will now have the wind in their sails, and this threatens more such battles over Israel down the line…. Support for Israel among the Democrats is eroding far beyond the party’s far-left caucus. This may be a small faction in the House, but it represents a wider constituency that’s too large for the party leadership to ignore.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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