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Israel's growing isolation

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Israel is coming under increasing international criticism over its handling of the war in Gaza. Military operations have killed more than 35,000 people in the crowded enclave, according to the Ministry of Health there. Despite widespread condemnation, Israel appears intent on pushing further in Rafah. That's raising questions whether it's slipping towards international isolation. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has this report.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In favor, 143 - against, nine.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Earlier this month, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to support the Palestinian bid for full U.N. membership. Israel's response was swift. With dramatic flourish, its ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, pulled out a mini paper shredder and ran a copy of the U.N. charter into it.

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GILAD ERDAN: Yes. Yes. That's what you're doing, shredding the U.N. charter. Shame on you.

NORTHAM: The move in the General Assembly was largely symbolic, as the U.S. would veto the full recognition of a Palestinian state. Still, it sends another signal about growing discontent with Israel over the war in Gaza that stretches from diplomacy to arts and culture to trade. Among other things, its relations with the U.S. are strained. The peace treaty with Egypt is in jeopardy. Israel faces charges of genocide before the International Court of Justice, protests over the Eurovision Song Contest, and Turkey banned trade with Israel.

GALLIA LINDENSTRAUSS: I think it's a - it was a very dangerous move that Turkey took against Israel and, in my view, a miscalculation.

NORTHAM: Gallia Lindenstrauss specializes in Turkish-Israeli relations at the Institute for National Security Studies here in Tel Aviv. She says the trade, worth $6.8 billion last year, helped keep an otherwise fractious relationship together.

LINDENSTRAUSS: Turkey and Israel are very important regional powers in the Middle East. The fact that these two countries have reached this level of hostility is very concerning.

NORTHAM: This is a long way from the days immediately following October 7 when Hamas militants stormed into Israel, killing more than 1,200 people. There was sympathy from many quarters of the world. That started to unravel when Israel launched its military offensive into Gaza, bringing down whole city blocks, hospitals and shelters to get the militants. The sheer scale of death and destruction sparked a backlash. I asked Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Chatham House, if Israel was running the risk of international isolation.

YOSSI MEKELBERG: I don't think we are talking about risk anymore. I don't think we are talking about the slight (ph). We are talking, actually, that's what happens in actuality. Israel is isolated.

NORTHAM: Mekelberg says Israel is paying the price because the government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a group of ultra right-wing ministers is detached from world opinion. Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster, says it doesn't matter what the world thinks.

MITCHELL BARAK: Who really cares? - because we're in an existential battle. So who really cares if we're liked by the world or not liked by the world? - because our very existence is at stake here. So that's what people are focused on.

NORTHAM: Even Israel's most ardent supporters are losing patience. Earlier this month, President Biden announced the U.S. would stop sending some offensive weapons, including powerful 2,000-pound bombs if Israel invaded the congested southern Gazan city of Rafah. And yet, all indications are Netanyahu is preparing a large-scale offensive. Chatham House's Mekelberg says it's shortsighted.

MEKELBERG: To upset the United States, when the rest of the world also disagree with you, it shows you the state of mind of Netanyahu - to hell with the country as long as he stays in power. To risk the single most important relations with another country, it's reckless.

NORTHAM: At a busy coffee shop here in Tel Aviv, Ilya Sap (ph) agreed that allies are important.

ILYA SAP: The question is, what is the price? Because if the price is to put more Israel civilian in dangers, I think it's not worth it.

NORTHAM: At a cafe a few doors down, Tali Lupovitch (ph) sipped an iced drink, shook her head and said, Israel is stronger than it's ever been. But...

TALI LUPOVITCH: I don't think any country can stand alone. It's not an option for especially today.

NORTHAM: Lupovitch thinks Israel's isolation is reversible, but it may come from domestic pressure, such as calls for a change in government. Yonatan Freeman, international relations expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says a rising number of casualties among Israeli troops could increase calls for a cease-fire or a hostage release.

YONATAN FREEMAN: And I think that if in the end, we have a deal and the hostages are released, I think that could impact society - and for Israelis to say that maybe this war, we shouldn't continue now. We reached one of our major goals. Let's make a pause.

NORTHAM: That may have little effect on hard-liners in Netanyahu's government who want to eradicate Hamas, no matter how much damage it does to the country and its reputation. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.