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Does criticism "de-legitimise" Israel?

By Omar Radwan

There has been much concern in Israel recently about alleged efforts by individuals and groups in the West to "de-legitimise" Israel. The Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, has published a report entitled "Eroding Israel's Legitimacy in the International Arena", cataloguing actions targeting Israel undertaken by universities, trade unions, pro-Palestinian groups and other organisations in Europe and North America. The report says that these actions, which include street demonstrations, cultural and economic boycotts, financial sanctions and events such as "Israel Apartheid Week", as well as the publication of articles critical of Israel in the Western media, are part of a concerted effort to demonise and "isolate Israel and turn it into a pariah state".


De-legitimisation was also a major theme of Israel's 10th annual Herzliya Conference on security, where, it was claimed, Israel was "under siege", with its army officers and politicians facing prosecution if they set foot in Europe and its image in the West in tatters following its attack on Gaza. Numerous articles about the threat of de-legitimisation have been published in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post and Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that "Israel must de-legitimise the de-legitimisation" which, according to him, was inflicted on the country by the Goldstone Report

It would seem from all this that Israel is facing a serious threat. However there is nothing really new in the de-legitimisation theme. A very similar conference to the one held in Herzliya took place following Israel's invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. This conference, held in London, spoke of growing "anti-Semitic" criticism of Israel in the West and said that Israel was failing to get its message across to a Western audience, without mentioning the actual cause of the ill-feeling. It seems that every time Israel attacks the Palestinians or its other neighbours and commits war crimes, its apologists complain that it is being targeted by an unjustified and well-coordinated campaign of hatred. The clear implication is that Israel should be free to attack the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours (there has recently been talk of war against Syria and Lebanon) without regard to international law and without being criticised or held to account.

A closer look at the Reut Institute's report confirms this. It lists the attempts to bring Israeli war criminals to justice in European courts, and equates them with warfare against the Jewish state, calling it "international lawfare". It says that Hamas is behind these attempts to bring Israeli politicians and military officers to justice. The report tries to present the cases as a campaign motivated by hatred of Israel, rather than a way of seeking justice for the victims of Israel's aggression and subjecting Israel to the same standards of international law that all countries are expected to comply with. However, if this campaign was as unjustified as the report would like us to believe, Israeli leaders would truly have nothing to fear. Courts in the West would throw out the cases brought before them without hesitation. The fact is that Israeli leaders know that they have committed crimes against civilians and that the cases against them are based on credible evidence. This is why they have attacked all attempts to hold them to account, most notably the Goldstone report, with such venom.

The quotes that the Reut report lists to back up its case that there is a campaign of de-legitimisation against Israel as a state mostly refer to Zionism rather than Israel. This is an important distinction. For example, Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah said: "The loss of legitimacy in the practices of the [South African] apartheid regime is what changed, and when a system loses its legitimacy, all the weapons in the world cannot protect it… we're beginning to see a similar loss of legitimacy for Zionism." Zionism refers to an ideology and it is not identical to the Israeli state. It is the ideology that states that only Jews have the right to a national home in Palestine and that the indigenous inhabitants must be either driven out or relegated to a subservient, minority status. It is this ideology which is the driving force behind Israel's settlement activities in the West Bank and its refusal to countenance a Palestinian state. Criticism of this ideology, which is a remnant of the colonialist era and favours one ethno-religious group at the expense of another is perfectly legitimate. Abunimah goes on to point out that after the apartheid system lost its legitimacy, the South African state still existed. This is an important point to remember in the Zionism-Israel discussion.

The claim that there is an orchestrated campaign of de-legitmisation against Israel is in fact another of Israel's attempts to silence and intimidate its critics. All of the "de-legitimisation" activities listed in the Reut Institute's report are examples of legitimate criticism of Israel. In democratic societies, people are within their rights to make such criticism, which is perfectly understandable given Israel's ongoing violation of the most basic rights of the Palestinians and its occupation of their land. The Reut Institute would have us believe that an alliance consisting of Hamas, Islamists resident in the West, and leftist groups is behind current criticism of Israel. Ron Prossor, Israel's ambassador to the UK was quoted in Haaretz as saying, "The combination of a large Muslim community, a radical left, influential, English-language media and an international university centre make London fertile ground for Israel's de-legitimization." Similarly, Eyan Shayshon an analyst with the Reut Institute writing in the the Jewish Chronicle calls this the "Red-Green" alliance and describes it as an "unholy pact". He says that London is the main "hub" for this alliance, and the main groups involved are Respect, Socialist Action, War on Want, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Muslim Association of Britain. In reality, this alliance is a figment of Shayshon's imagination. While these groups are all critical of Israel, the criticism is spontaneous in reaction to Israel's actions. Naturally, some cooperation does occur to maximise effectiveness. Both the ambassador's and Shayshon's claims betray a fear of the Muslim community in the West reaching out to and forming alliances with the rest of society.

Amidst all the talk of de-legitimisation coming from Israel and its supporters, it is easy to forget that Israel has engaged in some very serious de-legitimisation of its own. According to international law, Israel is in occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and all Palestinian resistance to this occupation is legitimate. However, Israel has manipulated the Western media successfully, by a combination of slick PR and intimidation, into portraying acts of Palestinian resistance as "terrorism" and categorising those who speak out in favour of the Palestinians as "supporters of terrorism". At the same time, Israel's acts of aggression against the Palestinians, its alleged war crimes and ongoing siege against Gaza, and its theft of Palestinian land are downplayed casually. Israel's "hasbara" campaign has made sure that the conflict in the Middle East is presented either as a conflict between two sides with equal military capacity, or as one where Israel alone is the perpetual victim. Western politicians have bought into this deception wholesale.

Illegal Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank is another form of de-legitimisation, designed to prevent the Palestinians from ever exercising their legitimate right to self-determination by making the creation of a Palestinian state impossible. Shayshon claims that those who, in his view, are trying to de-legitimise Israel are trying to make a two-state solution impossible, when in fact it is Israel's activities in the West Bank which make it impossible.

Instead of trying to intimidate critics into silence with hysterical reports of organized campaigns of de-legitimisation against it, Israel would do well to examine its own actions, which do more to de-legitimise it than anything its critics can do or say. The horrific bombardment and siege of Gaza showed the world that Israel has no regard for the lives of innocent civilians while the murder of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh demonstrated that Israel is prepared to break every law and diplomatic norm to achieve its goals and behave like a criminal in doing so. The perception exists that critics of Israel are a "strategically significant, potentially existential, threat", in the words of the Reut Institute Founder and President, Gidi Grinstein. His institute's report says, "The [Israeli] cabinet should also confront groups trying to de-legitimise Israel but embrace those engaged in legitimate criticism." It remains to be seen how the Netanyahu government will interpret the words "confront" and "legitimate"; within the law or à la Dubai?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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