By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; A08
JERUSALEM -- An Elton John concert ordinarily isn't front-page news. But in Israel, where many feel more shunned than they have in decades, the legendary pop icon's decision to perform in Tel Aviv last Thursday was cause for celebration.
After weeks of dreary reports about artists caving to calls to boycott Israel, Israeli diplomats being expelled by friendly allies, and even pressure from the United States to change course in Gaza, John allowed Israel an opportunity "for three hours," as one music reviewer put it, "to be a normal country."
Israel is no stranger to feelings of isolation. It weathered years of Cold War-era Arab and Soviet hostility. Books have been written about the United Nations' perceived antagonism toward the Jewish state. A well-known decades-old song, "The Whole World Is Against Us," is invoked today by Israelis who argue that no matter what the country does, it will be shunned.
The feeling has become more pronounced in recent weeks. With the peace process stalled, the international community turning a skeptical eye toward Israeli shows of force and pro-Palestinian groups eager to jump on the nation's missteps, the stage was set for a furious reaction when commandos killed nine activists aboard a Turkish aid ship heading for Gaza on May 31. Since then, Israelis have engaged in a heated national conversation about how and why the country has become so isolated.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's subsequent decision to ease a blockade of the Gaza Strip, a concession to the United States and European allies, revealed the extent to which Israel lacks international support, analysts say.
"This is something Israelis know: that they very, very much depend on both America and Germany, or in the larger sense, Europe. And there's nothing they fear more than being alone in the world," said Tom Segev, an Israeli historian.
No matter how alone Israelis have felt in the past, they have routinely found comfort in unconditional U.S. support. While polls still show strong public support for Israel in the United States, American activists helped organize the Gaza aid flotillas. On Sunday, 500 demonstrators gathered at a port in Oakland, Calif., to prevent the unloading of an Israeli cargo ship.
But it's not just Bay Area liberals who are critical of Israel. The nation had eight years of stalwart U.S. backing under President George W. Bush, but President Obama's approach to the Middle East has made Israelis feel as though they are in danger of losing their most important ally.
U.S. diplomats worked with special envoy Tony Blair to pressure Israel to revamp its Gaza policy and limit its blockade to weapons and related material. The United States also lobbied to allow more construction materials into the territory, which is ruled by the Islamist Hamas group. Rather than parrot the Israeli language that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, U.S. officials described the situation there as "unsustainable and unacceptable."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Netanyahu and other cabinet ministers after the flotilla raid that Israel needs a "daring and assertive political initiative" to rescue it from its international isolation, the daily Haaretz newspaper reported. "There is no way to rehabilitate ties with the [U.S.] administration without presenting an assertive political program that will address the core issues of a final settlement with the Palestinians," Haaretz quoted Barak, who met with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in Washington on Monday, as saying.
The fury of international condemnation that erupted against Israel following the raid caught Israeli diplomats flatfooted, even though it came in a climate when singers were already canceling shows and academics were being disinvited from international conferences.
What has been most surprising for Israelis in recent months is that criticism has come not only from traditional detractors in the Muslim world but also from the West. Israel is "making it so difficult for even its truest friends to understand its behavior," Germany's development minister said Sunday after Israel barred him from entering the Gaza Strip.
Israel was already in trouble with its Western allies following its alleged killing in January of a Hamas operative in a Dubai hotel. Israel has never said its Mossad intelligence agency carried out the killing. But Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland expelled Israeli diplomats to protest the use of forged passports from their countries by the assassins.
The arrest in Poland this month of a suspected Mossad agent, and the threat to expel him to Germany, has complicated relations with two more European allies. The Dutch foreign minister canceled a visit earlier this month, and an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said the ministry is waiting to find out who else may back out in the coming weeks.
The tension stretches to Asia, too: Vietnam told President Shimon Peres, Israel's elder statesman, not to come on a scheduled visit after the flotilla incident.
Frustration with Israel's international isolation is coupled with Israeli anxieties about the country's seemingly dwindling capabilities, said Oz Almog, a sociologist at Haifa University. "We are not as strong as we used to perceive ourselves," Almog said. "Our army is not as victorious as it used to be."
In this environment, Israelis look to John's appearance for reassurance, just as they see reasons for despair in cancellations by Elvis Costello, the Pixies and indie folk singer Devendra Banhart.
Israelis may be indifferent to criticism when it's in their own media or when it comes from Israeli human rights groups, Segev said, "but we are not indifferent to these signs coming from abroad."