Is the war in Gaza turning Israel into a pariah state?

Possible ICC warrants are the latest indicators

Demonstrators hold up painted hands as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on May 21, 2024.
Kent Nishimura/AFP
Demonstrators hold up painted hands as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on May 21, 2024.

Is the war in Gaza turning Israel into a pariah state?

If Israel needed any more evidence that it is rapidly turning into an international pariah because of the Gaza war, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan provided it on Monday when he said that he was seeking arrest warrants for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

The fact that Khan was also seeking warrants for Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Ismail Haniyeh, and Mohammed Deif might offer some solace for Israel and its supporters in that Hamas won’t be able to escape from its alleged war crimes. But moral equivalency with a militant organisation is hardly flattering. And, much more importantly, the impact of an arrest warrant has far greater implications for Israel.

Apart from getting arms from Iran and cash from Qatar, Hamas doesn’t have much to do with the outside world. Sinwar and Deif are presumably holed up in a tunnel somewhere deep under Gaza and aren’t going anywhere; Haniyeh is a resident of Qatar and travels only to countries that do not belong to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and, therefore, won’t threaten him with arrest. Gaza, meanwhile, remains blockaded.

By contrast, Israel is deeply engaged with the world through trade, investment, and travel as well as via cultural, academic, and scientific ties. An ICC warrant would not only crimp Netanyahu’s travel plans and put him into the unsavoury company of previous ICC defendants—such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir—it would also cast a dark shadow over the entire country. Israel would be the first Western democracy with the moral stain of being led by a fugitive from the international law.

The ICC affair illustrates, in a nutshell, the challenges that Israel faces as its nearly eight-month-old war in Gaza comes under growing international criticism. That criticism has spurred a popular movement in much of the West to isolate Israel, if not economically, then psychologically and morally, via academic and artistic boycotts.

Will ICC arrest warrants enable the anti-Israel drive to significantly widen its base and gain unstoppable momentum? Will public opinion turn unremittingly hostile to Israel? Will multinational corporations and investors, for instance, decide that the warrants make Israel untouchable? Will governments impose economic sanctions?

Given how unprecedented the ICC threat is, it’s hard to answer any of these questions right now. What can be said with far more certainty is that Israel is more vulnerable to even the mildest forms of boycotts, sanctions, and divestment than any of the other countries that have come into the ICC’s crosshairs.

Israel is a wealthy country but a small one, whose domestic market cannot justify producing at home most of what it needs, whether it is automobiles or the oil to run them, construction steel, or smartphones. Foreign trade accounts for a significant 61% of gross domestic product.

The import substitutions that Russia and Iran, two much bigger sanctioned countries, have carried out with varying degrees of success would be a nonstarter for Israel. Over most of the past decade, foreign direct investment has exceeded 4% of GDP, well above the average rate for members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The high-tech sector, which has been the engine of Israeli economic growth for the better part of two decades and has become its national brand, can only exist as part of a globalised economy. Over the past three years, foreign capital has accounted for three-quarters of total investment in Israeli start-up companies. Israeli tech companies are entirely focused on overseas markets, and the biggest of them are publicly traded on Wall Street.

When US President Joe Biden threatened in mid-May to halt the supply of some weapons to Israel if it invaded Rafah, Netanyahu vowed that Israel would fight with its “fingernails. ... If we must stand alone, we will stand alone.” But it is an empty promise. As large and technologically sophisticated as Israel’s arms industry is, it could never fulfil the country’s needs for basics such as fighter jets, submarines, and bombs.

The war against Hamas in Gaza, which has eaten up prodigious amounts of ammunition supplied by the United States, has only heightened that reliance. If it ends up confronting Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel will need even more US arms.

Israel would be the first Western democracy with the moral stain of being led by a fugitive of international law.

Even a limited economic and/or arms boycott would pose a serious threat to Israel. But, to date, it has not come close to facing one. Instead, Israel has had to contend with calls for boycotts and sanctions that have emerged in their most powerful form on college campuses and in artistic and literary circles, such as PEN America.

Yet, for all the media attention they have earned, these campaigns have had little impact. Only about 12 institutions of higher education have struck deals with pro-Palestinian protest leaders, including demands for divestment from companies doing business with the Israeli military or government, but none of the universities and colleges have made any firm commitments. Unless the protests resume after summer break with the same urgency and the legal and institutional obstacles are overcome, their demands are likely never to be implemented.

A more serious threat is arising from a quieter but much more effective boycott of Israeli academics as well as Israeli artists and writers by their peers. The Israeli academic community is just as globalised as its high-tech sector, and it will struggle to contend in a world where research papers are turned down by journals, scholars are unwelcome at conferences, and access to grants and fellowships is blocked. There are reports that this is happening already.

In the same vein, some Israeli writers have been censored (most prominently, Joanna Chen, whose essay on the Gaza war was pulled from the literary magazine Guernica), and some Israeli artists have seen performances and exhibitions cancelled. Israeli artists and writers may not need the entire world as much as academics, but the psychological blow has been enormous—especially since, as a group, they tend to see themselves as critics of their own government.

But it is doubtful whether Israel's critics will be able to widen their campaign into a far-reaching consumer or business boycott. Public opinion just isn't anti-Israel. When the Pew Research Center polled Americans in March (about five months into the war in Gaza), 58% of respondents said Israel's reasons for fighting were somewhat or completely valid.

An injured Palestinian mother and daughter hug each other after surviving Israeli bombardment of Gaza in October 2023.

Even as Palestinian casualties had reached about 32,000, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, more US respondents found Israel's war conduct acceptable than didn't. Perhaps even more telling, more than a quarter said in response to both questions that they weren't sure, a reflection of how little of the public gives it a thought at all.

Most importantly, among Americans ages 50 or older—the cohort most likely to be university trustees and occupy corporate C-suites—support for Israel's war effort was much higher (67% to 78%), and the share who said they weren't sure was much lower (15% to 22%).

It's too early to say whether the proposed ICC arrest warrants will bring about a sea change in public opinion. More likely, they will reinforce the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli feelings that already exist in certain communities and enflame their moral fervour (while they ignore the fact that the charge sheet against Hamas is actually longer). For the rest, Israeli actions in Gaza have been the subject of intense media coverage since the start of the war, and it is unlikely that the ICC will be presenting any new damning evidence.

What is possible—but again, it is too early to say with any assurance—is that some companies may look more askance at doing business with Israel. But it is official sanctions that pose the greatest danger. Governments—first and foremost the US government, with its ability to leverage the dollar to enforce its will around the globe—have the power to impose and enforce sweeping measures in one fell swoop.

But for now, it seems, Israel appears safe. The European response to Khan's announcement has been mixed but not enthusiastic, and the Biden administration has denounced the planned arrest warrants for top Israeli officials.

REUTERS/Nuri Vallbona
University of Texas at Austin Anthropology Professor Craig Campbell leads chants with other university faculty members during a pro-Palestinian protest on the campus.

The longer-term outlook for Israel is less certain. Among Americans ages 18-29, support for Israel in the war is much more tepid. More hold a more favourable view of Palestinians as a people than they do of Israelis. If these opinions stay with the young as they grow older and advance to positions of power and influence (and assuming that the Israel-Palestine dynamic remains unchanged), Israel could be in for tough times.

The ball in those intervening years will be in Israel's court. It has a chance to make amends—if not to win over hardcore Palestinian supporters, then at least to sway the rest. Unfortunately, Israel's current government has neither the will nor the ability to do that.

Its far-right component sets the tone for much of policy, especially regarding the West Bank occupation, and its leaders happily offer controversial, if not shocking, statements that provide grist for anti-Israel activists. For these far-right leaders, Israel shouldn't be wasting time worrying about what the world thinks of it. Bezalel Smotrich, the extreme right Israeli finance minister, thus dismissed Khan's announcement as just another example of "hypocrisy and hatred of Jews."

Without a change of government, Israel may indeed be on its way to pariah status without even putting up a fight.

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