Saturday 24 January 2009

Israel Has Fewer Friends Than Ever, Even In America

By Rod Nordland | NEWSWEEK

Israel has never been more isolated. Its best friend, the United States, had vetoed 41 Security Council resolutions condemning Israel in the past three decades, but was about to vote for the Jan. 8 resolution denouncing the attack on Gaza when President Bush intervened, at the behest of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Still, in the face of unprecedented global criticism, the U.S. didn't dare veto, but merely abstained. Europe, never Israel's close ally, erupted in near unanimous outrage over Gaza, with fits of anti-Semitic violence in France, Sweden and Belgium.

Israel is accustomed to attacks from the left and the U.N. This time, though, Amnesty International has accused Israel of war crimes (using white phosphorus against civilians), and the secretary-general was unusually outspoken. After Israel bombed five U.N. compounds, Ban Ki-moon called the attack "heartbreaking … outrageous and unacceptable." His condemnation of Hamas rocket attacks came later, in milder terms.

Israel's last major military excursion, into Lebanon in 2006, aroused less anger. Its closest European ally is Britain, where Tony Blair initially refused to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon. By day two in Gaza, his Labour successors were pushing for a ceasefire; one M.P. called Israel's leaders "mass murderers." The global outcry in 2006 was tempered by disgust at Hizbullah's rocket campaign, which killed 43 in heavily populated northern Israel. This time, Hamas rockets hit a patch of sparsely populated southern Israel, killing three, while the Israeli response has been far more deadly. Some 1,300 Palestinians have been killed—compared with 500 Shiites in Lebanon.

The one region where Israel is arguably not more isolated is the Middle East. Israel's push for Arab recognition suffered a setback when Mauritania and Qatar severed relations, but four Arab summits have reached no consensus on how to respond to Gaza. Major states, led by Jordan and Egypt, want to lend no comfort to their Persian rival, Iran, the backer of Hamas. Moreover, Hamas has not emerged as a plucky hero to the Arab world, the way Hizbullah did in 2006. When the fighting quieted last week, Hamas held a "victory" parade in Gaza City, and it fizzled.

Israel has just one key friend. Could Obama, who promised the Muslim world "a new way forward" in his Inaugural Address, loosen the bond? A recent Pew poll shows 55 percent of U.S. Republicans, but only 45 percent of Democrats, approve of Israel's actions in Gaza. Given that Democrats now rule, Israel may need to worry more about the mood on Main Street than on the Arab Street.

With Christopher Dickey in Doha and Sophie Grove in London

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