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Israel's political isolation

Kersten Knipp / ecsOctober 5, 2013

Israel considers itself a part of the "West." But unlike its allies, it physically borders the countries making headlines in the Middle East. And that, political analysts believe, is dividing it from the US and Europe.

A UN peacekeeper uses his binoculars on an observation tower in the demilitarized United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) zone, in the Golan Heights. (Photo: Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images)
Image: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Newly elected Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has surprised the West by turning over a new diplomatic leaf. He has congratulated Israelis on the Jewish New Year and expressed a willingness to restart talks on Iran's nuclear capabilities.

But his new tone has also created a dilemma for Western countries: Can Rouhani's words be trusted, or are they just a tactic to undermine the West and subvert sanctions placed upon Iran?

Opinions are divided, but a clear line is emerging: where Europe and the US are inclined to be carefully optimistic about Tehran's new tone, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu doesn't want to hear it. He doesn't trust Rouhani, recently calling him a wolf in sheep's clothing during a speech at the UN General Assembly. His country also places Iran further along the nuclear weapons timeline than the US.

Political scientist Mordechai Kedar at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies shares Netanyahu's assessment. He told DW that Iran continues to pose a threat - and not only to Israel.

A man wearing a white Middle Eastern hat and black robes speaks into two microphones at a black podium and before a black marble backdrop (Photo: Mike Segar / Reuters)
Rouhani's UN speech was viewed as conciliatory and a departure from those of his predecessorImage: Reuters

"Iran is a bigger danger to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf region, and to Iraq - which is already acting like a marionette," he said. But Iran doesn't only pose a threat to its geographical neighbors, Kedar added.

Elie Podeh, who teaches Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Israelis have always been skeptical of Iran. But the professor points out that many Israelis are prepared to tentatively take an optimistic view of Tehran's new tone.

"The question is to what extent this is a real change or a rhetorical change," he told DW.

Conflict in Syria

Political scientist Kedar sees little indication that Iran is seriously changing its politics. The country's Syria policy in particular has made him skeptical of Iran's apparent turnaround.

An Israeli settlement on the West Bank. (Photo: Abed Al Hashlamoun / EPA )
Not for sale in the EU: Products from the West BankImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Iran has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime with weapons, soldiers and money throughout the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah in Lebanon - also on Assad's side - is funded by Iran. The UN resolution on chemical weapons will do little to dispose the Iranian government to changing its position, Kedar says, with Tehran viewing Russia's assertiveness against the West as a success.

"The Iranians are on the winning side of the world today. Europe and the United States are viewed today as paper tigers that cannot even maintain sanctions - never mind a war - on rogue states like Iran, North Korea and Syria," he said. "And this is why we are very worried in Israel. Because we are part of the Western world - [one] which has gone through self-castration."

Nor will diplomacy halt the violence, since both the Syrian government and the armed rebels are equally unimpressed by appeals and offers to negotiate, Kedar says.

"There is almost no connection between what happens in the international arena and what happens inside Syria. The rebels and the government couldn't care less about resolutions. The fighting inside Syria continues, massacres continue, every day dozens of people are being killed," he said.

Growing isolation

Israel's geographical location ensures that turmoil in the Middle East will affect the country more than its Western counterparts, with Israeli citizens understandably more worried about developments in Syria, Egypt or Iran.

Gas masks are distributed at a central Jerusalem shopping mall. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)
After gas attacks in Syria, preventative gas masks were passed out in Israel in August 2013Image: Kate Shuttleworth

Yet that is exactly what could lead to their political isolation when it comes to both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the West's dealings with Iran, says professor Podeh.

"If the Western community in general supports some kind of dialogue with Iran, Israel is very much against that. So it's isolating itself from the mainstream," he said.

Where Europe has made its Israeli-Palestinian position clear by boycotting products from the Israeli settlements - and making more demands for peace efforts - Podeh says the US is slightly more accommodating.

"If Obama succeeds vis-à-vis Iran, he might be in a better position to try and pressure Israel on the Israeli-Palestinian track," he said. "So it will not be simple for Israel in the near future the Iranian and the Israeli-Palestinian fronts."