Israel's deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, spoke over the weekend in Washington about what he sees as the three chief foreign policy challenges that Israel faces today: Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Goldstone report.
It is not just this single report that worries Israel, Meridor explained, but the notion that the international community will not give Israel the maneuvering room it needs to fight necessary and just wars against terrorism.
Meridor has a good reason to worry. Anyone who cares about Israel should.
Israel's image internationally - not just in Europe, but also in the United States - is eroding. Still far from being a pariah state, Israel is, however, facing the specter of an avalanche of legal indictments against its military and political leaders, as well as growing calls for divestments and various types of boycotts.
In America, only the far left seriously talks about such measures as a viable option, but these ideas are gaining traction. In the past couple of weeks, I spoke twice about Israel at universities in the Washington area, and was repeatedly asked by students and faculty about the applicability and effectiveness of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as tools to compel Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank. The BDS movement, which is in full swing in Europe, is gaining momentum on U.S. campuses as well, because Israel is increasingly perceived there as belligerent, intransigent, and racist.
This is a perception that any Israeli investment in Hasbara (public relations and propaganda) could not significantly remedy. The only way for Israel to regain public approval internationally - and, yes, among young Americans as well - is for it to actively pursue peace.
As long as Israel does not reach peace accords with all its neighbors, it is most likely to continue to fight defensive wars that it will view as just and defensive. That's a given. But Israel will not be able to effectively fight such wars, justified and necessary as they may be, without paying a heavy price internationally. That does not have to be a given. That can be remedied. Sincere peace efforts can both make such wars unnecessary and - if they are necessary - peace efforts can make them internationally tolerable.
A European diplomat in Washington, who is far from being an Israel-basher, recently told me that although the sentiments toward Israel in the U.S. are far from being similar the harsh sentiments among Europeans, he increasingly sees resemblances. The main reason, he surmised, is that Israel is no longer perceived as genuinely pursuing peace.
When Israel was still seen as a peace-seeking country, as reaching out to moderates in the region, people and their governments were much more likely to tolerate Israel's military actions against militants, he said. But when Israel is perceived as indiscriminately killing non-combatant civilians in pursuit of militants, and does not actively reach out to the moderates at the same time, it finds much less goodwill internationally, he explained.
Europeans, Americans, and others worldwide want to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved, and they increasingly see Israel as being responsible for its perpetuation.
A poll conducted by The Israel Project in the summer - and never published because of its embarrassing results - showed that only 44% of American voters think that America should support Israel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was the lowest level since 2005. Unsurprisingly, the highest level, over 70%, was in the weeks that followed the Annapolis peace conference in the fall of 2007.
Only 46% said they see Israel as committed to peace, down twenty percentage points from 66% in December 2007 and March 2008.
Israel will continue to hemorrhage support if its prime minister is perceived as saying yes to a two-state solution while working to undermine it. Israel will continue to lose in the court of public opinion if it is perceived as obstructing regional peace, which has now been framed by a popular American president as a chief U.S. national security objective. It will continue to struggle for sympathy if it goes on building settlements.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a popular leader heading a strong coalition, can reverse this trend and save Israel from international isolation by taking bold action, by leading, by suggesting a courageous Israeli peace initiative, by reaching out to the Palestinians, to Syria and Lebanon, by telling them that everything is on the table and negotiations can start in earnest right now, by taking advantage of a U.S. administration that wants to broker a deal and of a pragmatic Palestinian partner in the West Bank.
Yes, here again, peace is the answer.