With the latest deadline for nuclear talks with Iran looming at the end of the week, we can already predict the biggest loser in the event of a deal: Israel. An agreement along the lines of what has been reported is not what Israel wanted. It was never going to be. But the shortsighted, take-no-prisoners stance of the Israeli government has guaranteed that its concerns got shorter shrift than was absolutely necessary.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuís incessant calls to prohibit any Iranian enrichment of uraniumówhen it was clear very early on that the P5+1 was not going to proceed along such linesódid not serve to set a negotiating baseline. Instead, it ended up marginalizing Israel and created a situation in which the American negotiating team became even more indifferent to Israeli interests. By making what was an unrealistic goal the centerpiece of his opposition strategy rather than focusing on attainable elements, such as thorough inspections or limits on ballistic missiles, Netanyahu damaged his own cause. The perception that he, not Iran, was the unreasonable party marginalized Netanyahu and assured that negotiators would not take anything else he said seriously, irrespective of the underlying truth at the heart of his position, namely that Iran is a bad actor that has spent decades fighting Israel and the West and destabilizing the Middle East.
The arena of Iranian negotiations is not the only one in which Israelís tendency to take an extreme position has obscured the justice of an underlying issue. While Iran is the threat that looms largest in the eyes of the Netanyahu government, another major one is diplomatic isolation, a multi-tentacled menace that requires a coordinated response if Israel is to defeat it. The danger is embodied by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate Israel economically and culturally, but the larger risk lies with a growing perception among mass audiences that Israel deserves extra opprobrium for actions that are depicted as extraordinarily beyond the pale. Recognizing the danger of this development, the Israeli government has attacked it with guns blazing, but often in a way that leads to Israel shooting itself in the foot.
One of the biggest drivers of Israelís isolation is the portrayal of Israeli actions in Gaza, where Israel has conducted large-scale military operations to prevent rocket fire against Israeli population centers multiple times over the last decade, most prominently during Operation Cast Lead 2008, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. In each instance, Israel has battled a designated terrorist organization that locates its own positions in densely populated civilian areas. Thus, no matter how many precautions Israel takes, Palestinian casualty numbers are far higher than Israeli ones. The challenges that Israel faces in these confrontations should be self-evident, as acknowledged by people like Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey. While Israel is not perfect, it does a good job in a nearly impossible situation anytime it goes into Gaza. But it does a terrible job defending these operations.
Rather than consistently make the reasonable and correct argument that civilian casualties are tragic but unavoidable given Hamasís tactics and admit that Israel makes mistakes but does the best that it can, Israeli officials tend towards exaggeration. The most representative example is the claim that the IDF is ďthe most moral army in the world,Ē which has been made by prime ministers, defense ministers, deputy foreign ministers and others. The IDF certainly has high standards of conduct, investigates abuses when they occur, and operates in a security environment that presents challenges that no other military faces on such a constant and ongoing basis. It is also the case that IDF commanders and soldiers make decisions and take actions that violate the IDFís own code of ethics and behavior. This latter fact does not make the IDF or its soldiers any different from soldiers anywhere at any time in history, and in no way should it subject the IDF to be singled out for special criticism. The IDF almost certainly does a better job than the vast majority of fighting forces would were they subject to the same conditions and opponents, but its soldiers are not generally immune from moral lapses.
Claiming that the IDF is the most moral army in the world does not inoculate Israel from criticism; rather, it stirs opponents of Israel to redouble their efforts to tar the Jewish state, which only serves to highlight the Israeli misconduct that inevitably occurs in the course of fighting. Rather than wage the battle of ideas on a plane that it can win, Israeli officials create a playing field that is tilted against them from the start. When you have to defend not only that your soldiers acted appropriately far more often than not during the fog of war, but that your soldiers acted more appropriately than any other soldiers in the world do or would, you are doomed to fail.
This is not to suggest that all Israel has to do is own up to its failings or moderate its rhetoric and its critics will melt away. Israel is always going to have a target on its back no matter how exemplary its behavior, which is the burden of being a Jewish state. But the double standard to which Israel is frequently subjected only becomes worse when Israeli leaders claim to be meeting a standard that no country could possibly meet, and easily discredited maximalist assertions make it far easier to ignore those Israeli claims very much rooted in reality.
When your foreign minister and economy minister use the word terrorist to refer to a Palestinian leader who has not advocated violence and who your own head of domestic intelligence certifies has not engaged in terrorism, your legitimate complaints about that leaderís diplomatic intransigence and unwillingness to respond to negotiations tend to go unheeded. People who seek to delegitimize Israel or single it out as uniquely deserving of sanction are unlikely to be swayed by logic and fact, but their task is made easier when Israel itself stretches the bounds of logic and fact. In the process Israel ruins its credibility with those whose views on Israel are largely unformed.
Rather than create unnecessary obstacles for itself, the Israeli government would be better served by an honest public assessment of what can and cannot be accomplished, what can and cannot be defended. It betrays a sense of insecurity to bluster on about unsubstantiated assertions, particularly when Israel is a fundamentally just, decent, democratic country that makes mistakes but is doing a good job under difficult circumstances. Owning up to missteps, including those of its own making, will not make Israel weaker, and will in fact earn it more respect among those who tend to be on Israelís side. Whether the goal is containing the threat from Iran or containing the threat of international isolation, scorched earth tactics only limit Israeli power and influence. Were Netanyahu and his government to focus on pushing for policies that are achievable and defending Israel on grounds that are more sustainable, they may find more success in meeting their objectives going forward.