Israel: A Belly-Dance Video and the Specter of Delegitimization

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Jim Hollander / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly Cabinet meeting in September

Israel's latest mortification, now playing on YouTube, features a Palestinian woman in modest Islamic dress, captive, blindfolded and standing stock still while an Israeli soldier undulates against her, trilling his fingers like the belly dancer he pretends to be as he grins at his friend who holds the camera. This follows the infamous Facebook posting of a female soldier beaming beside blindfolded and bound Palestinian men — her prisoners — in a photo album titled "IDF — The best time of my life." That came on the heels of a YouTube video of an Israel Defense Forces patrol dancing to Kesha's "Tik Tok" on the streets of Hebron, a West Bank city where the military mission is to protect a handful of Israeli settlers who have chosen to live in the hostile, mostly Palestinian area.

The dance video at least has charm. But lest there be any confusion about how the world sees these things, the algorithm is about nothing if not context. And the page's first two "suggestions" for related clips are "Shocking video! Israeli army committing crimes ..." and "Israel Soldiers shoots arrested Palestinian." Originally posted by an Israeli, the Hebron dance line lives on under the title "It's easy to laugh at the occupation when you're the repressor (and a douche bag)."

The hits just keep on coming, and with a relentlessness that lends subtle but persistent urgency to the effort to keep alive the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even if the sides navigate the obstacle posed by the end of Israel's moratorium on West Bank settlement construction, the odds of negotiating a solution to the conflict will remain remote. But the alternative is seeing Israel's international standing corroded, one Web post at a time.

Israelis themselves debate the fairness of this. Some, such as former Hebron sergeant Yehuda Shaul, say social media simply showcase the moral calluses Israel has built up over the 43 years it has sent young people to occupy Palestinian territory conquered in the 1967 war.

"You need a peace deal because this is the reality," says Shaul, who with other West Bank veterans founded a group called Breaking the Silence to show the Israeli public exactly what soldiers do in their name. The group started with a photography show, then published testimonies of soldiers troubled by the abuses they described as routine.

"Social media is a great tool because it doesn't allow the system to control everything," says Shaul. "More or less it's like water — you can find a way to block it, but it's going to find a way to get out."

Others acknowledge the bad behavior of individual soldiers in what proud Israelis still dub "the most moral army in the world." But they worry about how much is made of individual disgraces. There are some concrete reasons world sympathy has shifted steadily away from Israel — still the underdog in 1967, when it whipped three Arab armies in six days — and toward the Palestinians. Reason one: the occupation itself.

But other reasons are not so concrete. They are in the air, says McGill University history professor Gil Troy, wafting on currents detectable to the antennas that Jews have developed over thousands of years of living with anti-Semitism.

"Israel is the only country whose very existence is still being debated," he says. Troy believes Israel is "the only country that still seems to be on probation." Consider Pakistan, also founded in 1948: when its chief nuclear scientist sells the bomb to rogue states, as A.Q. Khan did more than once, "people don't jump from criticizing that action to questioning why Pakistan was created in the first place," Troy says.

Many Israelis and supporters believe the country faces a systematic campaign of "delegitimization," accomplished when international support for the Jewish state is diminished to the point where its existence is up for grabs. Indeed, fear of Israel's declining international status, particularly in the wake of May's flotilla fiasco, is taken for granted here as a major factor in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to pursue a final-status agreement with the Palestinians despite decades as a hawk.

The need to nurture U.S. support against Iran was only one reason Netanyahu came around to the Obama Administration's bid for talks, says Troy. "The second is this question of delegitimization." And though not all criticism of Israel amounts to opposition to its existence, he says, some people "use these Facebook incidents, they use aberrations, they use the flotilla to say, 'Aha. It's no good. We should end it.' " It meaning Israel, where the middle-aged recall being taught as schoolchildren to chant, "The whole world is against us," with a brave defiance that comes less easily to adults.