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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel is losing its greatest asset: Acceptance

Dressed in white, women hold signs written in Arabic, Hebrew and English at a rare antiwar protest in Tel Aviv on Dec. 15, 2023. (Adam Sella/The New York Times)

By Thomas Friedman

I’ve spent the past few days traveling from New Delhi to Dubai and Amman, and I have an urgent message to deliver to President Joe Biden and the Israeli people: I am seeing the increasingly rapid erosion of Israel’s standing among friendly nations — a level of acceptance and legitimacy that was painstakingly built up over decades. And if Biden is not careful, America’s global standing will plummet right along with Israel’s.

I don’t think Israelis or the Biden administration fully appreciate the rage that is bubbling up around the world, fueled by social media and TV footage, over the deaths of so many thousands of Palestinian civilians, particularly children, with U.S.-supplied weapons in Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip. Hamas has much to answer for in triggering this human tragedy, but Israel and the U.S. are seen as driving events now and getting most of the blame.

That such anger is boiling over in the Arab world is obvious, but I heard it over and over again in conversations in India during the past week — from friends, business leaders, an official and journalists both young and old. That is even more telling because the Hindu-dominated government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the only major power in the global south that has supported Israel and consistently blamed Hamas for inviting the massive Israeli retaliation and the deaths of an estimated 30,000 people, according to Gaza health officials, the majority of them civilians.

That many civilian deaths in a relatively short war would be problematic in any context. But when so many civilians die in a retaliatory invasion that was launched by an Israeli government without any political horizon for the morning after — and then, when the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, finally offers a morning-after plan that essentially says to the world that Israel now intends to occupy both the West Bank and Gaza indefinitely — it is no surprise that Israel’s friends will edge away and the Biden team will start to look hapless.

As Shekhar Gupta, the veteran editor of the Indian newspaper ThePrint, put it to me: “There’s enormous love and admiration for Israel in India. But a war with no end will strain it. Initial shock and awe apart, Netanyahu’s war is damaging Israel’s greatest asset: the widely held belief in the invincibility of its army, the infallibility of its intelligence services and the justness of its mission.”

Each day brings new calls for Israel to be banned from international academic, artistic and athletic competitions or events. That so much of it is hypocritical in singling out Israel for censure — while ignoring the excesses of Iran, Russia, Syria and China, not to mention Hamas — is true. But this Israeli government is doing things that make it too easy. Many of Israel’s friends are now just praying for a cease-fire so that they don’t have to be asked by their citizens or voters — especially their youth — how they can be indifferent to so many mounting civilian casualties in Gaza.

In particular, many Arab leaders who privately want to see Hamas destroyed, who understand what a warped and destructive force it is, are being pressured from the streets to the elites to publicly distance themselves from an Israel that is unwilling to consider any political horizon for Palestinian independence on any border.

Or, as Netanyahu put it in the morning-after plan he issued last Friday: Israel will keep security control over Gaza, the territory will be demilitarized, the strip’s southern border with Egypt will be sealed much more tightly in coordination with Cairo, the United Nations agency that provides primary health and education services for Palestinian refugees will be disbanded, and education and administration will be completely overhauled. Civil administration and day-to-day policing will be based on “local elements with administrative and management experience.” Who will pay for all of this and how local Palestinians will be enlisted to perpetuate Israel’s control is not explained.

Netanyahu refuses to even consider trying to nurture a new relationship with non-Hamas Palestinians, because to do so would risk his prime minister’s chair, which depends on backing by hard-right Jewish supremacist parties who will never cede an inch of the West Bank. Hard to believe, but Netanyahu is ready to sacrifice Israel’s hard-won international legitimacy for his personal political needs. He will not hesitate to take Biden down with him.

But the broader point is that a unique opportunity to permanently diminish Hamas, not only as an army but also as a political movement, is being squandered because Netanyahu refuses to encourage any prospect, however long term, of building toward a two-state solution.

Still so traumatized by Oct. 7, Israelis, in my view, are failing to see that at least making an effort to move slowly toward a Palestinian state led by a transformed Palestinian Authority and conditioned on demilitarization and hitting certain institutional governance goals is not a gift to Palestinians or a reward for Hamas.

It is instead the most hard-nosed, selfish thing Israelis could now do for themselves — because Israel is losing on three fronts at once today.

It is losing the global narrative that it is fighting a just war. It has no plan to ever get out of Gaza, so it will eventually sink into the sands there with a permanent occupation that will surely complicate relations with all its Arab allies and friends across the globe. And it is losing regionally to Iran and its anti-Israel proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, who are pressuring Israel’s northern, southern and eastern borders.

There is one fix that would help on all three fronts: an Israeli government prepared to begin the process of building two nation-states for two people with a Palestinian Authority that is truly ready and willing to transform itself. That changes the narrative. It gives cover for Israel’s Arab allies to partner with Israel in rebuilding Gaza, and it provides the glue for the regional alliance Israel needs to confront Iran and its proxies.

In failing to see that, I believe Israel is imperiling decades of diplomacy to get the world to recognize the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination and self-defense in their historic homeland. It is also relieving Palestinians of the burden and depriving them of the opportunity of recognizing two nation-states for two people and building the necessary institutions and compromises to make that happen. And, I repeat, it is going to put the Biden administration in an increasingly untenable position.

And it is making Iran’s day.

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