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The Lessons of Isolation

What are the major difference between U.S. isolation and Israel’s attempts to integrate?

January 7, 2002

What are the major difference between U.S. isolation and Israel's attempts to integrate?

For some time now, political pundits have been talking about the unilateralism and/or neo-isolationism of the Bush administration. However, America’s aloof stance is not new. In fact, it can be traced back through several presidencies.

And yet, according to our calculations, there are at least nine major international conventions and treaties that Washington has refused to sign or to join since the Bush administration took office in January 2001. They range from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming emissions to the international treaty to ban land mines.

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington are presumed to have ushered in a new era in U.S. foreign relations. If anything good were to come out of the terrible events of September 11, it was argued, it would be greater engagement on the part of the most powerful democracy, the United States, with the rest of the world.

Indeed, for a while, it did seem that way. The Bush administration took pains to build a solid anti-terrorist coalition, cutting across religious and ideological lines.

It also implicitly promised to pay attention to a number of urgent issues around the world, promising a greater sense of accommodation and smart power-sharing.

But that effort is half-baked at best. In reality, the administration has moved back to its pre-September 11, unilateralist stance rather quickly.

What about Israel in this context? Well, while the United States is, in essence, choosing an isolationist path of its own making, Israel has had such a path essentially forced on it. Since its inception, the State of Israel has faced diplomatic isolation.

Even the crucial vote on November 29, 1947 at the United Nations to create the Jewish state hung in the balance — until, at the last minute, the Soviet Union and its satellites rather inexplicably changed their mind and voted for Israel to come into existence.

Israel’s isolation became especially acute in the 1970s and early 1980s. Newly independent states joining the United Nations, after attaining freedom from their former colonial masters, made a common front with Arab and radical Muslim states. They worked steadfastly to exclude Israel from as many international bodies as they could.

Israel fought against this systematic form of international exclusion tooth and nail. It used development aid, military training and agricultural assistance to win new friends and supporters.

It was a difficult — and, in many ways, futile struggle. After all, their main opponent — the Arab nations — had an important weapon, oil, to keep poor nations in line.

In addition, many other countries in Africa and Asia feared antagonizing the Soviet Union, which at that time was the main supporter of front-line and radical Arab states.

Against this backdrop of enforced isolation, it is more than astounding to note that the United States has recently been moving in the same direction — toward isolation.

In so doing, the position of the United States is quite unlike that of Israel, since nobody really has the muscle to keep the United States out of international forums. But, as things stand, in a variety of fields, the U.S. government is apparently keen to bring about that result all by itself.

Israel’s example shows what a failure isolation — whether voluntary or involuntary — really is. Israel’s isolation was imposed on it by Arab states. Largely because Israel had to labor in a relentlessly hostile environment and had to fight the permanent terrorist threat on its own, the country developed a formidable military machine and a dynamic economy.

And now, the mistrust that the Arab-imposed isolation of Israel built up over many years is coming back to haunt the Arabs by destroying the channels for communications between the adversaries.

The problem here is two-fold. First, even ‘dovish’ Israelis have lost patience with the Arabs because of their tactics, and bear them little goodwill. Even more important, negotiations between nations are a painstaking process.

Usually, negotiators for the two sides get to know their opposite numbers, begin to understand the political dynamics on the other side and personal relationships often succeed in accomplishing an agreement.

Without engaging Israel over those long years, Arabs lost those potentially crucial channels of communication.

Not that any of this helps Israel. There is no denying that its long-standing isolation — reinforced by its military success — has contributed to making lasting peace with its neighbors nearly an impossible dream.

The Middle East thus contains a cautionary tale for Washington. Winning military conflicts can be accomplished in isolation. In fact, it is probably easier for the United States to win a war when acting alone. But isolation carries severe long-term costs, both for those who voluntarily choose that path — and for those on whom the path is imposed.

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