Is This a Turning Point for Israel’s Standing in the World?

Writing in Jacobin, Ecuador’s former foreign minister under Rafael Correa analyzes the cracks in Israel’s international standing that seem to be emerging — even in the United States.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2016, in New York City. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

One obvious result of Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in reprisal for Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack is that it has put the Palestinian struggle back at the forefront of global politics. The question now is whether Israel’s assault on Gaza will foster a big enough international backlash to meaningfully affect the status quo ante. Can renewed international focus on the plight of Palestinians generate more robust pressure for a political solution? Or will Israel once again plough through this crisis undeterred?

By any measure, the last few years had seen a waning of many states’ solidarity with the Palestinian cause — this in spite of unchecked encroachment on Palestinian land in the West Bank under Israel’s recent spate of far-right governments. In Gaza, the social, economic, and humanitarian costs of a ferocious blockade have also been rising. Yet a kind of international political fatigue, in the context of a low-intensity conflict and a slow-burning humanitarian crisis, often displaced by the urgency of other global disasters, had drained the Palestinian cause of much of its previous international attention.

In recent years, moreover, Israel has invested much effort in improving its bilateral relations with several formerly hostile states, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2020, the Abraham Accords normalized Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Bahrain. More recently, Israel and Saudi Arabia, egged on by the United States, have been in the process of fine-tuning a much talked-about “deal of the century,” now either completely off the table, or contingent on some kind of solution for Palestinian statehood. Of the signatories of the Abraham Accords, only Bahrain, following Jordan’s lead, has pulled its ambassador from Israel as a result of the Gaza crisis.

Even the Turkish government, with its historic ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, had significantly de-escalated tensions with Israel, certainly in comparison with the combative approach espoused by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan back in 2010, before the war in Syria (among other concerns) downgraded the Palestinian cause as a priority in Ankara. In September, Erdoğan and Benjamin Netanyahu’s first ever meeting, on the sidelines of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, was hailed by both sides as the sign of a thaw in bilateral relations. This was followed by Turkey appointing a new ambassador to Israel the day before the October 7 Hamas attack. The ambassador has since been recalled and relations with Israel have now plummeted to new lows, with Erdoğan calling Israel a “terrorist” state and demanding that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) be deployed to Israel to check for nuclear weapons.

In Africa, too — a region historically sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle — Israel had been making very significant inroads. After the fall of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and in the context of the Abraham Accords, Israel normalized relations with Sudan. Israel also reestablished diplomatic relations with Chad, now back in the freezer after the Chadian government recalled its ambassador over the Gaza offensive.

More generally, the last few years saw Israel go all out to seek more profound cooperation agreements, especially in the field of security, with a number of sub-Saharan African states, including Nigeria, Rwanda, and the Ivory Coast. Israeli relations with Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, meanwhile, have been at an all-time high. Israel’s ties with African states improved to such an extent that it was invited to become an observer state of the African Union, a decision that was reversed when Algeria and South Africa put their foot down, causing a diplomatic stir at the African Union’s February 2023 Addis Ababa summit.

Latin America and Beyond

As for Latin America, pro-Palestinian sentiments had run high during the 2008–2009 and 2014 Gaza wars, with most of the region moving after 2010 to recognize Palestinian statehood within 1967 borders. But pro-Palestine positions were dramatically reversed as a surge of right-wing governments took power in several Latin American countries between 2015 and 2019. Encouraged by the Donald Trump administration in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Jeanine Añez in Bolivia, and others espoused very right-wing pro-Israel views.

With the latest shift to the left, Latin America mostly returned to its multilateralist tradition of greater commitment to Palestinian self-determination. Israel’s attack on Gaza has therefore been met with some firm Latin American condemnations beyond usual detractors such as Cuba and Venezuela: Colombia, Chile, and Honduras recalled their ambassadors; Bolivia broke off relations. But there are significant exceptions, particularly in Central America, and now also in Argentina, where the imminent inauguration of diehard pro-Israel politician Javier Milei promises to further fragment the region’s response.

In Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, seeking to play the role of seasoned statesman and mediator as his country chaired the UN Security Council, initially issued more cautious condemnations of Israel than some of his neighbors. But recent spats over Israel’s intelligence agency making it appear that Brazil had taken Israeli orders to arrest supposed members of Hezbollah in Brazil and the Israeli ambassador’s recent meeting with Bolsonaro have further soured relations in the last few weeks.

Unlike the United States, Western Europe, and the bulk of NATO, both China and Russia recognize Palestinian statehood, within 1967 borders and with its capital in East Jerusalem. But neither state has made the defense of Palestinian rights a salient aspect of its foreign policy in recent years. Despite some tensions over Russia’s links with Iran and Syria, Israel has been careful to maintain generally good relations with Russia, even if the war in Ukraine did generate ill will between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin.

China, meanwhile, has been Israel’s second-largest trading partner, and with good enough relations for the South China Morning Post to proclaim that “Israel’s close economic ties with China worked well — until the Gaza conflict.”

India — true to its Nehruvian legacy of nonalignment and Indira Gandhi’s solidarity with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (India was the first non-Arab state to recognize the PLO) — also recognizes Palestinian statehood. But the country has significantly warmed to Israel since Prime Minister Rao’s overture in 1992. Israel’s support for India in its 1999 Kargil War against Pakistan played a big role in this sea change.

In the last decade, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while formally upholding India’s traditional multilateralist position, has gone further still, making close ties with Israel a symbolic part of his Hindu nationalist hostility toward both domestic Muslims and the historic Pakistani foe. Departing from its longstanding multilateral position, India even abstained in the October 27 UN General Assembly vote that called for a truce in Gaza to pave the way for a cessation of hostilities. Crucially, India is now the largest purchaser of Israeli arms in the world.

Of the BRICS countries, South Africa has remained the most solidly partisan in its ongoing denunciation of Israeli apartheid. The government has pulled its ambassador, and the parliament has called for the outright cutting of diplomatic ties until Israel agrees to a cease-fire.

Flagging Support?

The scale of Israel’s retaliation on Gaza changes everything, of course. Encouraged by the rising tide of public opinion, many governments have denounced Israel’s mass killing of innocent civilians and its violations of international law and basic human rights.

This is particularly true in the Middle East, where the issue has once again galvanized public opinion. At the November 11 joint summit of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Riyadh, heads of state rejected the notion that Israel was acting out of self-defense, urged the International Criminal Court to investigate Israeli “war crimes,” called for a ban on weapon sales to Israel, and demanded that the UN adopt a binding resolution to halt Israeli aggression. It was an inordinate show of unity in an otherwise divided region, with an Iranian president visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2012.

Rhetorically charged, the Riyadh summit nevertheless fell short of producing concrete steps. Proposals such as severing economic ties, cutting oil supplies, or preventing the transit of US weapons to Israel did not win unanimous approval. But Arab states, increasingly frustrated by what they see as the West giving Israel a free pass for its atrocities, are starting to resort to greater geopolitical power plays. The recent visit to China of the Foreign Ministers of Arab and Muslim majority states was a bold move for the region, even if announced as the first stop in a wider diplomatic tour. It was also very well received in Beijing, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi denouncing Israel’s “collective punishment” of Palestinians.

But Israel still retains much support in countries around the world. In the United States, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa, the influence of Christian Zionists and evangelical churches has afforded Israel powerful friends. Ghana’s unflagging support for Israel in this current crisis rests on both the evangelical president Nana Akufo-Addo’s personal creed and his political wooing of evangelical Christians. In Ghana, as elsewhere in Africa, long gone is the spirit of Third-Worldism that spurred twenty-nine African countries to break off relations with Israel over the 1973 war.

In the West, Israel has been able to effectively mobilize the politically powerful groups that support it. The notion of Israel forming a Western bulwark in the Middle East, amid rising fear over the West’s waning global influence, very much thrives in conservative circles. And the notion that “Israel is the antidote to Western decline” now also dominates the discourse of the far right. Even in Europe, where the antisemitic roots of the radical right run deep, the last few years have seen Islamophobia and resistance to immigration acquire a more prominent place in the belief systems of right-wing extremism.

A crucial question, then, is: How will the political center respond? Put differently, which narrative will prevail? Where will Europe — where significant sectors of the public hold pro-Palestinian views, and where the political class is more divided on the issue than in the United State — eventually end up? Will the political mainstream go down the road espoused by the die-hard pro-Israel president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen? Or will conventional European voices endorse former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin’s call for the West to “open its eyes”?

Europe’s renewed vassalage to the United States since the war in Ukraine began does not bode well for a truly independent position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the other hand, the risks of a backlash from its own electorate are also starting to steer European politicians toward a more cautious diplomatic course, which necessarily entails increased criticism of Israel. We are already seeing politicians timidly amending their initial positions as the Israeli massacres grow, backbench parliamentary rebellions erupt, and public opinion polls and protests reflect significant popular discontent.

Whether the international community puts more pressure on Israel in a quest for a long-term political solution will ultimately depend on the extent of global public outrage, itself contingent on how much further Israel is willing to go in its current violence against civilians.

In past conflicts, the death toll for Palestinians has been multiple times higher than that of Israelis. In the 2014 Gaza War, 67 Israeli soldiers and 6 Israeli civilians were killed, versus 2,251 Palestinians, 60 percent of them civilians, according to the UN Human Rights Council. In the current assault on Gaza, as of this writing, we see a Palestinian death toll of around 16,000, with 40 percent of those killed being children, versus the roughly 1,200 Israelis killed in the horrific Hamas attack.

In relative terms, therefore, Israel’s killings have been proportionally consistent with prior punishments it has inflicted on Palestinians. But in absolute terms, these numbers tell a different story. The sheer pace of the killing has no wartime parallel this century, and with over 1.7 million people internally displaced and over half of northern Gaza’s buildings damaged or destroyed, the level of destruction of Palestinian lives and livelihoods is unprecedented.

Cracks in the Consensus

Historically, Israel has been able to stick to its guns despite widespread international condemnation because it has enjoyed unconditional US support. That backing is unlikely to drastically change, but there are significant cracks in the consensus. Public opinion in the United States has been consistently shifting on the Israel-Palestine issue for a number of years. For the first time, dozens of congressional of the president’s party have broken with him on the issue, calling for a ceasefire. Dissent is reportedly simmering in the State Department over the Biden administration’s blank check for Israel.

If the massacres continue, even the United States may find it needs to raise its brazen, pro-Israel unilateralism to new heights. Yet this could also harm the administration’s standing with the US public, not least the younger voters in the Democratic base, as well as with the international community, with China and Russia reaping the benefits of such isolation.

For Israel, there is thus a real possibility of a pyrrhic military victory with a harmful political outcome, if it is indeed militarily successful. Some of its key diplomatic forays of the last few years are already in the balance. Israel may not care. It has, after all, plowed through a lot of international hostility in the past, cultivating powerful allies and its own nuclear deterrence to counterbalance that opposition. One way of looking at Israel’s recent diplomatic achievements is to see them as buffers designed to soften the blows when international crisis beckons. What are a few diplomatic spats and ambassadors withdrawn in the grand scheme of things? If rising international hostility towards Israel is not given real teeth, credibly threatening either Israel’s military power or economic standing, it is unlikely to trump Netanyahu’s domestic political concerns or perceived security prerogatives.

After a prolonged hiatus, the issue of Palestine is firmly back on the table. But the question remains whether the scale of Israel’s ethnic cleansing and lethal violence will trigger a paradigm shift that fundamentally erodes Israel’s legitimacy — and whether this watershed moment means the Palestinian plight refuses to vanish from sight as it has so often done in the past.