The claim of Israel’s isolation, echoed by Democratic and Republican leaders alike, is gaining status as fact. “Israel finds itself increasingly isolated, beleaguered, and besieged,” John Heilemann wrote recently in New York magazine. The Economist reported that “Israel’s isolation has . . . been underlined by the deterioration of its relations with Turkey and Egypt.” New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “isolating his country,” while Thomas Friedman described Israel as “adrift at sea alone.”
But is Israel really more isolated now than in the past?
Isolation, of course, is not automatically symptomatic of bad policies. Britain was isolated fighting the Nazis at the start of World War II. Union forces were isolated early in the Civil War, as was the Continental Army at Valley Forge. “It is better to be alone than in bad company,” wrote the young George Washington. That maxim is especially apt for the Middle East today, where one of the least-isolated states, backed by both Iran and Iraq and effectively immune to United Nations sanctions, is Syria.
Israel, in fact, is significantly less isolated than at many times in its history. Before the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel faced a belligerent Egypt and Jordan and a hostile Soviet bloc, Greece, India and China — all without strategic ties with the United States. Today, Israel has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan; excellent relations with the nations of Eastern Europe as well as Greece, India and China; and an unbreakable alliance with America. Many democracies, including Canada, Italy and the Czech Republic, stand staunchly with us. Israel has more legations abroad than ever before and recently joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which comprises the most globally integrated countries. Indeed, Egypt and Germany mediated the upcoming release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held hostage by Hamas for five years.
Israel is not responsible for the upheavals in the Arab world or for the lack of freedom that triggered them. Israelis did not elect Turkey’s Islamic-minded government or urge Syria’s army to fire on its citizens. Conversely, no change in Israeli policies can alter the historic processes transforming the region. Still, some commentators claim that, by refusing to freeze settlement construction on the West Bank and insisting on defensible borders and security guarantees, Israel isolates itself.
The settlements are not the core of the conflict. Arabs attacked us for 50 years before the first settlements were built. Netanyahu froze new construction in the settlements for an unprecedented 10 months, and still the Palestinians refused to negotiate. Settlements are not the reason that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed a unity pact with Hamas in May, or why, in his address to the U.N. General Assembly last month, Abbas denied the Jews’ 4,000-year connection to our homeland. As Abbas wrote in the New York Times in May, the Palestinian attempt to declare a state without making peace with Israel was about “internationalization of the conflict . . . to pursue claims against Israel” in the United Nations, not about settlements.
As for borders and security, Israel’s position reflects the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. After uprooting all our settlements, we received not peace but thousands of Hamas rockets fired at our civilians. In Lebanon, a U.N. peace force watched while Hezbollah amassed an arsenal of 50,000 missiles. Israel’s need for defensible borders and for a long-term Israeli army presence to prevent arms smuggling into any Palestinian state is, for us, a life-and-death issue. Moreover, in a rapidly changing Middle East, we need assurances of our ability to defend ourselves if the Palestinians who support peace are overthrown by those opposed to it.
Despite repeated Palestinian efforts to isolate us, Israel is not alone. And we have a great many friends, especially in the United States, who we know would not want to imply that Israel stands alone in a dangerous region. Prime Minister Netanyahu remains committed to resuming peace talks with the Palestinians anywhere, any time, without preconditions, while insisting on the security arrangements vital to Israel’s survival. Meanwhile, we will continue to stretch out our hand for peace to all Middle Eastern peoples. To paraphrase one of George Washington’s contemporaries — if that be isolation, make the most of it.
The article originally appeared in the Washington Post on October 14, 2011.