Why ‘Brand Israel’ is failing

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Ambassador Michael Oren’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal is timely – and appropriate. Israel is less popular among young Americans than ever before. And it will only grow more unpopular as more facts about the occupation make their way into the American mainstream.

It is hard to know what Shalom Eisner — an Israeli army officer — was thinking when he brutalized a Danish bike protester several weeks ago. Probably his thoughts tracked what he was doing — which is to say they weren’t anything out of the ordinary. The Israeli officer was acting normally, on a normal day, in the normalized context of Israeli occupation. The only exceptional thing about the episode was the reaction it elicited.

The Israeli leadership quickly condemned the episode and the officer – who served in good standing until then – received a formal rebuke and was dismissed.

Why did a relatively minor incident provoke a big reaction from the authorities in Tel Aviv and why did the Israeli commentariat pile on in the way they did? Without minimizing the five victims’ pain, injury and trauma, the image of a Dahlesque figure atavistically wielding an M-16 was a little comical, after all.

So what happened?

It was only three-and-a-half years ago that the Israeli army killed 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza – almost a third of whom were children. At the time the Israeli public barely reacted. The country’s media covered the massacre in a way that either reflected or enabled a 94% approval rating for what was happening – within sight – in the name of the whole nation.

It wasn’t until Judge Richard Goldstone recommended that Israel and Hamas both investigate potential war crimes (14 Israelis were killed; four of them by friendly fire) that some people began to worry. But just a little. And not enough to prevent the killing of 9 unarmed Turkish human rights activists in international waters.

The “elite” Israeli commandos commandeered the flotilla and returned home. They were saluted and lionized in the press – but only in Israel. Elsewhere, Zionists struggled to explain the Israeli line to skeptical publics. Justifying an invasion in international waters proved impossible. The til-then-unnoticed, unrecognized, or unacknowledged deterioration in Israel’s legitimacy suddenly accelerated. And not just in Europe.

Today, the conversation about Zionism in America is dramatically different from what it was only a few years ago. Few credible people are willing to insist that the Palestinians and Israelis engage in “negotiations.” The fiction that underpinned the call for a “peace process” – that the two parties are mutual antagonists to a symmetrical dispute – has been unraveled.

Israel occupies the Palestinians. It seizes their property and locks them away. It builds Jewish-only roads and frets about the the number of non-Jewish babies being born. Americans are beginning to know these things and they want to learn more. Television programs like 60 Minutes are helping to spread the news.

The old peace process bureaucrats – people like Dennis Ross – are approaching irrelevance in 2012. The credibility they once enjoyed is gone. It was undermined by an objective reality which is increasingly being conveyed by intrepid bloggers and news reports.

Who can deny that the Oslo process was engineered to facilitate the preservation of Jewish privilege? Who can deny that Jewish privilege has meant rapacious self-indulgence and apartheid? And who can deny that Zionism – the rickety scaffolding upon which the entire project teeters – is approaching its rational conclusion?

The decline of the ideational influence of the Oslo crowd is linked to the decline in the effectiveness of the Israel Lobby. Today, the facile and sloppy application of the “anti-Semitism” charge is an exercise in self-caricature. The heavy-handed-back-channel or elite-access approach is no longer as effective as it once was, certainly not at 60 Minutes.

President Obama may still believe in the power of Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban’s money. Decades spent mired in Washington’s campaign finance muck have likely imprinted some basic premises on his mind. But those same premises are not shared by the next generation of American leaders.

American support for Israel is eroding – and not only because of Israeli policies. More than ever the state’s basic substance is being debated. Young Americans increasingly ask, if multiracial and multicultural, non-sectarian and non-religious democracy is good enough here, why isn’t it good enough in Israel?

There is no good answer to that question.

Does the Israeli leadership understand what’s happening? Was the reaction to a relatively minor incident an implicit acknowledgment of Zionism’s increasingly precarious position? Was it recognition that the camel is overladen – and that the marginal straw doesn’t have to be a particularly big one?

And if it understands all that, what does it plan to do about it?

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