Jewish Journal

How to Fight Delegitimization

by Eran Shayshon

April 28, 2010 | 12:05 am

Protesters burn an Israeli flag in front of the Israeli embassy in Athens, Greece. Photo by Tom Stoukas

Protesters burn an Israeli flag in front of the Israeli embassy in Athens, Greece. Photo by Tom Stoukas

My team and I at the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv recently published a comprehensive report on the intensifying global campaign aimed at delegitimizing Israel. In the report, we emphasized the importance of distinguishing between criticism of Israeli policy on the one hand, and efforts to delegitimize Israel’s existence and undermine its right to exist on the other. Delegitimization is about negating Israel’s right to exist or the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Thus, even unfair or biased criticism of Israeli policy is not necessarily equivalent to delegitimization.

Two distinct and independently operating forces drive Israel’s fundamental delegitimization. The first of these is the Middle East-based resistance network, comprising Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and additional Palestinian and Islamic factions. The resistance network advances a strategy of implosion that aims to precipitate Israel’s internal collapse by undermining attempts to end its control over the Palestinian population, delegitimizing Israel and, at the same time, conducting asymmetric warfare on the battlefield and against Israel’s civilian population.

The second force driving Israel’s delegitimization is a Western-based delegitimization network, made up primarily of elements of the radical European left. A relatively small group of anti-Zionist Jews and Israelis amplifies their message, which then reverberates throughout Islamic communities in the West. These groups aim to challenge the State of Israel’s moral and judicial legitimacy and seek to turn Israel into a pariah state. 

The concurrent ripeness of these two networks in the Middle East and the West may be coincidental, but the two dynamics create a predicament for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that can be seen unfolding on the ground. While the Middle East-based resistance network sabotages every move aimed at separating Israel from the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution, the West-based delegitimization network seeks to isolate Israel and promote, tacitly or explicitly, a one-state solution. The feedback loop arising from these two separately emerging processes in the East and West poses a threat to Israel’s political and economic model and has gained strategic significance in recent years.

How has the movement to delegitimize Israel emerged as such an effective force? Despite being driven by a political and social fringe, Israel’s delegitimization in the West became an agile and resourceful force when it emerged as a network. A network structure transcends the utility of individual nodes, which — when harnessed within a network formation — are able to rapidly adjust their attributes and objectives for optimal collective resilience. The delegitimization network structure contains a range of organizations and individuals from diverse backgrounds. They are dispersed globally, have no top executive or command-and-control centers, and — while varied in strategy and function — are driven by a common ideology that negates the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.

There are a relatively small number of hubs that carry the burden of delegitimization against Israel, usually global metropolises that concentrate global media, international institutions, leading academic centers, international NGOs and human rights organizations.

In each of these hubs, there are a relatively small number of catalysts, those individuals and organizations that carry disproportionate influence in driving the campaign to delegitimize Israel. These catalysts constitute the engine of the network, including by developing new actionable ideas, creating cooperative and information-sharing platforms, and initiating events and protests against Israel. In London, for example, the main catalysts are an amalgam of elements known as the red-green alliance — an unholy pact of radical British left and Islamist groups that includes organizations and political movements such as Respect, Socialist Action, War on Want, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Muslim Association of Britain — and individuals such as George Galloway, John Rees and Ghada Karmi.

Most of those who participate in these anti-Israeli activities in the West probably only aim to affect Israeli policies, rather than seeking Israel’s delegitimization. However, the effectiveness of the catalysts of delegitimization stems from their ability to engage and mobilize others by blurring the lines between delegitimization and criticism. They do so by demonizing Israel, deploying double standards, rallying coalitions around “outstanding issues” against Israel, making pro-Palestinian activity trendy and promoting grass-roots activities such as boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) that are aimed primarily at tarnishing Israel’s face. Thus, these catalysts have made significant inroads in expanding the delegitimization network.

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