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How Israel and Its Allies Lost Global Credibility

Israel’s war on Gaza, which soon enters its sixth month, has done untold damage to the enclave and its people, more than 32,000 of whom have been killed and millions of whom have been displaced. But the damage also extends to Israel’s global reputation—one that its closest allies fear could become permanent.

Such, at least, was the conclusion of the Biden administration, which in a recent State Department memo obtained by NPR warned that Israelis are “facing major, possibly generational damage to their reputation” as a result of its military’s conduct in Gaza—comments that echoed Biden’s December warning that Israel was losing support over its “indiscriminate bombing” of the Strip.

There is very little that Joe Biden and Donald Trump agree on. But the former President (and presumptive Republican presidential nominee) expressed similar concerns in a recent interview with Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, during which he warned that Israel is “losing a lot of support” over its handling of the war in Gaza. “I think Israel made a very big mistake,” Trump said, adding that the images of bombardment coming out of the Strip create “a very bad picture for the world.”

These kinds of concerns have been voiced ad nauseum by analysts and observers for months. That they are now being echoed by past and present—and, depending on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November, future—leaders of Israel’s most important ally, each of whom has staunchly defended the country’s right to retaliate against Hamas over the group’s Oct. 7 massacre, suggests that the tide of public opinion is turning faster than perhaps they or their Israeli counterparts anticipated.

Read More: ‘It’s Not Just a One-Off Incident:’ What the World Central Kitchen Deaths Reveal

There were signs. The chasm between Israel’s western allies and the rest of the world became apparent in the early months of the war, during which time Israel’s net favorability in places such as Brazil, China, Mexico, and South Africa flipped from positive to negative, according to survey data by the decision intelligence company Morning Consult. In countries that already held net negative views of Israel, such as Japan, South Korea, and the U.K., perceptions declined even further. By December, the U.S. was the only major developed market in which public sentiment toward Israel remained solidly positive.

This chasm has been perhaps most apparent at the U.N., where multiple ceasefire resolutions put forward by Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria and backed by most other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (barring the U.K., which mostly abstained) were repeatedly quashed by the U.S., citing insufficient language condemning Hamas or demanding the simultaneous release of Israeli hostages. When the U.S. put forward its own ceasefire resolution last month, Russia and China were the ones to veto it, along with Algeria. A breakthrough finally came on Mar. 25, when a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and the unconditional release of all hostages was passed with a sole U.S. abstention. While U.N. Security Council resolutions are legally binding (Washington claims otherwise in this case), it has yet to be enforced.

But as the war has ground on, and as increasingly dire reports of death, destruction, and man-made famine have made their way out of the Strip, even countries where support for Israel’s military offensive has been highest now appears to be diminishing. According to a March survey by the pollster Gallup, American support for Israel’s war in Gaza has flipped from a narrow majority in favor (50% approved and 45% disapproved in November) to a majority against (36% approve and 55% disapprove in March). While disapproval is highest among Democrats, Republicans and Independents also saw declines in support.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a leading Democratic lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tells TIME that Washington’s steadfast support for Israel amid allegations of possible war crimes has invited widespread criticism that the U.S. only selectively chooses to defend the international rules-based order—in Ukraine, for example, but not in Gaza. “We know that countries around the world, especially in the Global South, believe that the United States is applying a double standard here, and that is obviously having an impact on our own standing in the world,” he says.

Read More: The West Is Losing the Global South Over Gaza

While Van Hollen makes no apologies for Washington’s continued support for Israel’s right to take military action against Hamas, he notes that this support cannot be unconditional. “Even just wars have to be fought justly,” he says. “With the very high civilian death toll and with the humanitarian disaster that we’re witnessing in Gaza, and the way the Netanyahu government has conducted and expressed themselves, Israel has in many ways lost that goodwill with other countries around the world.”

Demonstrators hold placards reading "boycott Israel!" during a protest in support of Palestinians on January 27, 2024 in Madrid, Spain.<span class="copyright">Pablo Blazquez Dominguez—Getty Images</span>
Demonstrators hold placards reading "boycott Israel!" during a protest in support of Palestinians on January 27, 2024 in Madrid, Spain.Pablo Blazquez Dominguez—Getty Images

Dylan Williams, the vice president for government affairs at the U.S.-based Center for International Policy, says “In five and a half months of war, Israel has done more damage to its global standing than the preceding five and a half decades of occupation,” referencing Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967. Much like the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11, Israel received near-universal global sympathy and support in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, in which some 1,200 people were killed and hundreds more taken hostage in Gaza. “But rather than leverage that for near-universal backing for a targeted military campaign and diplomacy with global powers and new Arab partners on their side,” Williams adds, “Israel instead chose to decimate Gaza with indiscriminate bombardment and siege.”

That loss of goodwill extends beyond Israel. Indeed, lawmakers in countries considered to be among Israel’s closest allies have expressed concerns about the impact that the war stands to have not just on Israel’s credibility, but on their own.

This includes countries such as Germany, which among Israel’s European partners has been perhaps one of the most staunch defenders of the country. That position is informed in large part by Germany’s own guilt for perpetrating genocide against European Jews during the Holcoaust, and it drives what Germany regards as its “special responsibility” to defend Israel today. “We feel because of our historical responsibility that we should not be the first to come up with public criticism of any Israeli government,” Nils Schmid, a German lawmaker and foreign affairs spokesperson for the Social Democrats, the center-left party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the country’s three-way coalition, tells TIME. But that sensitivity has given way to more vocal concerns in recent weeks, during which time Chancellor Scholz has cautioned Israel about the “terribly high costs” of Israel’s military offensive, including a high civilian death toll and the lack of sufficient humanitarian aid.

Isabel Cademartori, a German lawmaker who in January penned a letter alongside dozens of German, Canadian, and American lawmakers calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and durable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, tells TIME that a failure to condemn clear breaches of international humanitarian law—or, worse yet, being seen to actively supply and fund actions that undermine it—risks undercutting the West’s moral stance, particularly when it comes to galvanizing greater support for Ukraine beyond Europe. “I felt that we have made a lot of progress in that area, and I feel that what we’re doing now is really counteracting that,” she says, noting that Israel’s conduct in the war “is not only hurting them; it’s hurting us too.”

“It really is difficult to argue in favor of respecting international law or the rules-based order while Israel clearly is acting in violation of it,” she said.

This is particularly true amid recent events, including the killing of seven aid workers in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza as well as the Israeli government’s decision to seize 800 hectares (1977 acres) of land in the occupied West Bank. “I think that no democratic country at this moment can defend Israel’s military action in Gaza, the withholding of humanitarian aid and potential invasion of Rafah.” As Cademartori sees it, Israel’s allies in the U.S., Germany, and elsewhere stand to lose international credibility “if they keep defending the indefensible.”

Israel’s declining international standing is already having a tangible effect. Last month, the Canadian government announced its intention to cease all future arms shipments to Israel, citing human rights concerns. The U.K. government is facing growing pressure to follow suit amid concerns that failing to do so could constitute a violation of international law. Meanwhile, in the U.S., calls to condition military aid to Israel are growing louder—particularly following the deadly Israeli airstrike on a World Central Kitchen aid convoy that killed seven relief workers, including a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen.

The Israeli flag is raised in black color with red handprints symbolizing blood in a demonstration near the Knesset, on March 31, 2024, in Jerusalem, Israel.<span class="copyright">Yahel Gazit—Middle East Images/Getty</span>
The Israeli flag is raised in black color with red handprints symbolizing blood in a demonstration near the Knesset, on March 31, 2024, in Jerusalem, Israel.Yahel Gazit—Middle East Images/Getty

If Israel is concerned about the implications its war in Gaza will have on its long-term standing, or that of its closest friends, it hasn’t shown it. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has repeatedly rebuffed calls for a ceasefire as well as pleas by the U.S. and others to reconsider Israel’s planned invasion of Gaza’s southernmost and densely-populated city of Rafah. Israeli officials continue to deny the existence of starvation in Gaza, which international aid groups warn is on the brink of famine.

The Israeli public “are in a bubble right now,” says Williams, but adds that the more Israeli leaders speak out about the reputational damage of the war, and the more information of what is happening in Gaza permeates Israeli society, the sooner Israelis will realize “that they’ve lost a tremendous amount of good will based on how they conducted this war.” At that point, however, it may already be too late.

Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.