Israel's Image Problem
For the past few decades, Israel’s reputation among the international community has been in sharp decline. A 2013 BBC survey of more than twenty-six thousand respondents from around the world found that only three nations (North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran) were more disliked globally than the Jewish state. It is the least-widely recognized United Nations member state and the most common subject of condemnations from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which has condemned Israel more than all other countries combined—to such an extent that the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the UNHRC earlier this year in protest.
So, it’s fair to say that Israel’s public image is subpar.
While Israel has always been disliked by other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, much of its recent decline in popularity has come from its allies in the Western world. Shortly after Israel won its War of Independence in 1949, NATO befriended the nascent nation in hopes of securing a Middle Eastern ally in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. As part of the “third world” (then a term encompassing all nations aligned with neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact), the Middle East was prime real estate for the United States’ and USSR’s expanding spheres of influence. The up-and-coming Israel provided an ideal opportunity for the forces of capitalism to secure an ally in an increasingly important geopolitical region of the world for years to come.
Israel’s relationship with NATO states is still the best it has in the world. To this day, Canada, the United States, and the vast majority of Western Europe recognize Israel but not Palestine. Backing Israel has become a formidable tool in American politics due to its strong support from evangelical Christians and American Jews, two of the most vociferous and politically engaged voting blocs in the Republican and Democratic Parties respectively. Israel has also proven itself a valuable ally in espionage and scientific development, collaborating closely with American scientists on research and development and creating some of the world’s foremost technological achievements, from the flash drive to the Iron Dome missile defense system.
In recent years, however, Israel’s western alliances have been shaken as the world has grown increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. NATO states’ legislatures have increasingly passed resolutions calling on their countries to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state, among them Spain, Belgium, and France, and most NATO governments have endorsed a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, usurping past policies of unilateral support for Israel. This movement toward Palestinians has come at a price: as support for Palestine has become more universal, condemnations against Israel have likewise increasingly gained support. These effects have been exacerbated as Israel’s government and populace have shifted significantly toward the right, driving a wedge between Israelis and the more liberal West.
Like much of its contemporaneous Western world, early Israel was a thoroughly progressive country, founded on a balance of capitalist markets and social welfare. For the first thirty years of Israel’s modern existence, its politics were dominated by the liberal Mapai and Labor parties, which secured the majority coalition in the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, in every election until 1977. However, much like in the United States, socialist policies fell out of favor with the Israeli electorate in the 1970s as the newly formed conservative Likud Party seized power, which it has maintained for most of the time since. This ideological separation between Israeli conservatism and Western European social liberalism has posed serious problems for Israel’s relations with its closest allies as the country has become increasingly nationalist, expanding its controversial settlements on the West Bank and imposing security checkpoints that restrict freedom of movement between Israel proper and the Palestinian territories. Various international organizations have declared these policies illegal, creating tension between the Jewish state and the global community.
Even Israel’s support among perhaps its most important international ally, American Jews, has begun to crack. Twice this summer, participants in the Birthright program, which provides a free trip to Israel for young diaspora Jews, created a commotion by staging a pre-planned public walkout partway through the trip. Participants described the program as a form of propaganda, live-streamed their protest, and left the group to explore the “real” Israel for themselves. These demonstrations are just one symptom of the greater split between American and Israeli Jews, which was laid bare this spring in an American Jewish Committee survey of two thousand participants from both countries that found serious divisions in ideology and political opinion. While 71 percent of American Jewish voters voted against President Donald Trump and the same percentage disapprove of his job in office, only 10 percent of Israeli Jews feel the same way. The same survey found while American Jews supported a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank by a 29-point margin, Israeli Jews were split on the question, 44 percent to 48.
Such key differences are endangering the transatlantic ties that bring together the world’s two largest Jewish populations. While American Jews are generally liberal and globalist, Israel’s shift to the right has aligned the nation with the brand of nationalism embodied by figures like Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These politicians’ focus on national security, defense spending, and America-first or Israel-first policies have a broad appeal in a country frequently bombarded by terrorist attacks and missiles. Israeli support for Trump and Netanyahu, however, places American Jews in a difficult position: although they still overwhelmingly believe (79 percent to 17 percent) that “a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people,” Jews in the United States are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile their support of Zionism with their disapproval of the current Israeli zeitgeist. If trends continue and American Jews fail to back up Israel in the future, the Jewish state will have lost its largest and most vocal ally abroad.
On this issue, American Jews are a microcosm of the Democratic Party, the progressive wing of which has recently become vocally anti-Israel. Democratic support for Israel has dropped by a third in the past two years. For the first time in history, Israel-Palestine has become a partisan issue; around 80 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israelis than Palestinians, while only 27 percent of Democrats say they feel the same way. Democrats are split into four evenly balanced quarters: supporters of Israel, supporters of Palestine, those who sympathize with neither, and those who don’t know enough to make a judgment. Israel is becoming a wedge issue on the left, splitting the party into a liberal, populist camp that sympathizes with Palestine and a more moderate, establishment camp that supports Israel.
This loss of support, both from Democrats and the international community, isn’t entirely incidental. Part of the sudden drop-off in support has its origins in a media strategy that Israel’s detractors are implementing against the Jewish state, taking advantage of just how terrible the Netanyahu government is at public relations. By prioritizing the safety and security of its citizens over its international reputation, the Israeli government has for the most part ignored all condemnations and negative headlines in favor of taking unpopular but firm actions for (in its view) its own security, such as arresting a Palestinian teenager last year for slapping an Israeli soldier. In the face of the latest series of attacks against Israelis and Israeli property—flammable kites and balloons being launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli farmland in order to burn crops, combined with routine missile attacks—the government has quietly moved to limit the damage. Israel suffers these attacks with little publicity and no expectation of foreign support, while its own retaliatory strikes often spark outrage abroad.
A clear example of Israel’s inability to generate positive press and how this deficiency benefits its enemies occurred this May. When the Trump administration relocated the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem during the Great March of Return, thousands of protesters covered the Gaza-Israel border, and Israeli soldiers opened fire and killed several dozen. Headlines decried the unprecedented number of casualties—a tragedy, to be sure—but there was little reporting of the fact that some 80 percent of those killed were members of the organization Hamas, the founding document of which demands the “obliteration” of Israel, describes murder in the name of God as “the loftiest of its wishes,” and calls for the genocide of all Jews. Hamas helped these goals during the Gaza protests by busing participants to the border, aware that an escalation into violence was likely, and by reportedly telling protesters to “bring a knife, dagger, or gun” to the event. The Washington Post briefly quoted one participant echoing these sentiments when he described his excitement “to kill, throw stones,” and to “storm” Israel. Still, such stories overall gained little traction in the press, which, instead, primarily condemned the Israeli response.
Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since it split with its West Bank-based counterpart Fatah in 2006, is taking advantage of Israel’s inability to explain itself by prioritizing giving Israel bad press and sinking its international reputation through a media strategy as well as a military one. As former President Bill Clinton once said, Hamas “has a strategy designed to force Israel to kill . . . [Palestinian] civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them.” The editor-in-chief of The Atlantic similarly wrote in 2014 that “Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible.” Hamas has provided supporting evidence to these claims by showing little regard for the lives of their own citizens when they stand in the way of the organization’s ultimate goals, even using “human shields of the women, the children, [and] the elderly,” according to one Hamas politician. The organization also encourages Israeli strikes against its own people. Two days into the burgeoning 2014 war between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, for example, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that an all-out escalation was “preventable only if Hamas stops rocket firing.” Hamas didn’t, and the war lasted seven weeks at the expense of more than two thousand three hundred Palestinian lives. For its part, Israel has done little to fight this media strategy by making its own case in front of the jury of its peers—the international community—and has chosen to instead focus on preventing further damage. Hamas is relying on this and on Israel’s allies becoming discouraged by negative headlines. Looking at American Jews and Democrats becoming more uncomfortable supporting Israel, we can see this strategy already working.
Criticism of Netanyahu’s government is rarely baseless and often warranted, but it is also part of Hamas’ strategy. As the international community condemns Israel more and more, its government and people will continue to support nationalist, right-wing politicians like Netanyahu who institute security-oriented policies that come at the expense of Israel’s reputation and the wellbeing of non-Israelis. The country is locked in a dangerous cycle of alienation from the international community that, if it continues, will weaken Israel’s ability to be taken seriously on the world stage and push it even further to the extremes. Anyone who wants peace in the Middle East must read media reports about Israel and Palestine with a critical eye and consider whether they are becoming an unwitting part of something larger: a deliberate delegitimization of the Jewish state by those who want to destroy it.
The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license. The original was taken by WikiMedia contributor MathKnight and can be found here.
Jake Biderman is a fourth-year political science major interested in law, journalism, and governance. He has worked for outlets including the Des Moines Register and Fox News, covering the Democratic primaries and a Democratic presidential debate. When he’s not worrying about Americans’ critical thinking skills, he’s exercising, learning foreign languages, or watching baseball. Go Nats!