Taking stock of the effects of Middle East fighting on Israel

Last week, I took first stock of the Gaza conflict's effects on the Palestinians. This post will examine the effects on Israel. Even though the danger of renewed conflict remains because of Hamas using rocket fire as a negotiation tool and the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams remaining poles apart in terms of their initial demands, world pressure will likely prevent a return in the near future to the level of violence of the past month.

Israeli casualties in the recent conflict stand at 67, three of them civilians and the remaining soldiers. Militarily, even though Israel destroyed a large number of Hamas tunnels, killed many militants and depleted Hamas rocket stocks substantially, Hamas retained the ability to fire rockets and will certainly replenish its fighting ranks. Military victory remains elusive for either side to claim and will continue to be the case in the future.

The highest cost to Israel and where Israel certainly lost the battle is in the court of world opinion, where criticism of Israel was widespread and often vehement. Despite a concerted Israeli effort to portray Hamas as a Palestinian version of the Islamic State, cynically manipulating Palestinian civilian deaths to vilify Israel, these explanations failed to overcome the images of 2,000 Palestinian deaths and widespread destruction.

Across Europe, widespread demonstrations protested the fact that Palestinian civilians and infrastructure bore the brunt of Israeli military strikes. Placards held by demonstrators included criticism of Israeli policy and its occupation; denunciation of Israel itself; and vile anti-Semitic references to gas chambers. This comes on the heels of a global poll conducted by the BBC that showed that in Asia, Europe, South America, Canada, and all Arab and Muslim countries, the "mainly negative" view of Israel was twice as much as the "mainly positive," and this before the Gaza conflict. The only countries were there was a "mainly positive" view was the United States and Ghana.

Even in the United States, the sands are shifting, albeit much more subtly, but still enough to demonstrate a new phenomenon. Namely, that the issue of support for Israel could change from being a matter of complete unanimity in Congress and among the American political establishment to an issue that can actually be debated about and weighed for its costs and benefits to American national interest.

A series of July national surveys by the Pew Research Center found that young Americans were much less supportive of Israel's actions than older ones. More importantly, a large partisan gap has opened up in public opinion, with 73 percent of Republicans sympathizing more with Israel compared to 44 percent of Democrats. Up until 2001, Democrats and Republicans differed only slightly in their views. But since then, with the rise of the right in Israel dovetailing with the rightward swing of the Republican Party in the United States, unquestioning support for Israel has become dogma among the Republican leadership and voters.

With the usual parade of right-wing Republicans professing their undying support for Israel while paying lip service to the horrors inflicted on the Palestinian civilian population, Democratic voters may well begin to view support of Israel not as an American consensus or national interest, but rather a Republican position that must therefore be opposed.

In Europe and the rest of the world, popular sentiments have begun to affect government policy toward Israel. Though not yet the case in the United States, if the conflict drags on with Palestinian civilians bearing the brunt of the casualties, Americans will start to question their position on the issue of support for Israel. This is not to suggest that there will be a simplistic shift from pro- to anti-Israel, but rather a shift to understanding that the issue is a complex one where Israel is not always right and the Palestinians always wrong, and where standing by Israel, right or wrong, doesn't serve American or Israeli interests.

The long-term cost to Israel over the current and possibly future Gaza conflicts is the country's increased isolation. The concept of "de-legitimization" of Israel is becoming a growing concern among Israeli political elites as a strategic threat. Reversing that trend will only come with a political solution that both guarantees Israel's security, as well as gives the Palestinians an independent and viable state alongside.

[Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and political commentator.]

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