As Gaza Death Toll Mounts, Israel’s Isolation Grows

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When David Ben-Gurion, one of Israel’s founding fathers, was warned in 1955 that his plan to seize the Gaza Strip from Egypt would provoke a backlash in the United Nations, he famously derided the U.N., playing off its Hebrew acronym, as “Um-Shmum.”

The phrase came to symbolize Israel’s willingness to defy international organizations when it believes its core interests are at stake.

Nearly 70 years later, Israel faces another wave of condemnation in the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and from dozens of countries over its military operation in Gaza, which has killed an estimated 29,000 Palestinians, many of them women and children, and left much of the territory in ruins.

The huge swell in global pressure has left the Israeli government and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, deeply isolated, if not yet bowed, largely because it still has the support of its staunchest ally, the United States.

This time, though, Israel faces a rare break with Washington. The Biden administration is circulating a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council that would warn the Israeli military not to carry out a ground offensive in Rafah, near Egypt, where more than a million Palestinian refugees are sheltering. It would also call for a temporary cease-fire as soon as practical.

“It’s a big problem for the Israeli government because it has previously been able to hide behind the protection of the United States,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel. “But now Biden is signaling that Netanyahu can no longer take that protection for granted.”

“There is a broader context of condemnation by international public opinion, which is unprecedented in breadth and depth, and which has spread to the United States,” Mr. Indyk said. “The Democratic Party’s progressive, youth and Arab American constituencies have all become angry and harshly critical of Biden for his support of Israel.”

Until now, President Biden has not allowed international or domestic pressure to sway him. On Tuesday, the United States defaulted to a familiar role, invoking its veto in the Security Council to block a resolution, sponsored by Algeria, calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. It was the third time during the Gaza war that the United States vetoed a resolution putting pressure on Israel.

Since the United Nations was established in 1945, three years before the State of Israel, the United States has used its veto more than 40 times to shield Israel from the Security Council. In the U.N. General Assembly, where the Americans are just another vote, resolutions against Israel are commonplace. Last December, the assembly voted 153 to 10, with 23 abstentions, for an immediate cease-fire.

“As far as Israelis are concerned, these organizations are stacked against us,” said Michael B. Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and other bodies. “What they do doesn’t impact us strategically, tactically, or operationally.”

But Mr. Oren acknowledged that any break with the United States, its largest supplier of weapons, powerful political ally, and principal international defender, would be a “a whole different kettle of fish.”

While Israel has been under heavy pressure since the opening days of its offensive in Gaza, the chorus of voices from foreign capitals has grown thunderous in recent days. In London, the opposition Labour Party called for an immediate cease-fire on Tuesday, shifting its position from that of the governing Conservative Party, under pressure from its members and from other opposition parties.

Even Prince William, the 41-year-old heir to the British throne, called “for an end to the fighting as soon as possible,” a rare intervention into geopolitics by a member of a royal family that usually steers clear of such issues. “Too many have been killed,” William said in a statement on Tuesday.

Perhaps the most striking display of Israel’s isolation is at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where representatives of 52 countries are lining up to this week offer arguments in a case examining the legality of Israel’s “occupation, settlement and annexation” of Palestinian territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most have been scathingly critical of Israel.

South Africa likened Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to an “extreme form of apartheid.” The South African government has bought a separate case at the court accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza.

On Wednesday, the United States once again came to Israel’s defense, imploring the court not to issue a ruling that Israel must withdraw unconditionally from these territories. A State Department lawyer, Richard C. Visek, argued that this would make a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians even more elusive because it would not take Israel’s security into account.

But America’s was a lonely voice, with only Britain offering a similar argument.

“The truth is the very opposite,” said Philippe Sands, a human rights lawyer who spoke on behalf of the Palestinians. Noting that the court had already confirmed the Palestinian right to to self-determination, he said, “The function of this court — of these judges, of you — is to state the law: to spell out the legal rights and obligations that will allow a just solution in the future.”

Rulings of the International Court of Justice are advisory only, and Israel has boycotted these proceedings. But Israel’s defiance of international bodies does not mean it completely ignores them.

The Israeli government initially dismissed South Africa’s genocide claim as “despicable and contemptuous.” There were reports that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to send Alan M. Dershowitz, the lawyer who defended Donald J. Trump and the financier and sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, to present Israel’s case — a choice that some said would have turned the hearing into a circus. In the end, it sent a high-powered legal team, led by a respected Australian-Israeli lawyer, Tal Becker, who argued that South Africa had presented “a sweeping counterfactual description” of the conflict.

In an interim ruling in early February, the court ordered Israel to prevent and punish public statements that constitute incitements to genocide and to ensure humanitarian aid gets into Gaza. But it did not grant a key South African request: that Israel suspend its military campaign.

Even with the United Nations itself, the Israeli impulse to say “Um-Shmum” only goes far. Israel frequently maneuvers to torpedo or water down Security Council resolutions because it recognizes that they could open the door to sanctions.

In December 2016, Israeli officials lobbied Mr. Trump, who had just been elected president, to pressure the departing president, Barack Obama, to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israel for Jewish settlements in the West Bank (the United States abstained, and the resolution passed).

“They understand that you have to keep global opposition at the level of rhetoric,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who now runs the U.S./Middle East Project, a research group based in London and New York. “You can’t allow it ever to enter the realm of costs and consequences.”





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