I don’t know which phenomenon to lose more sleep over. On the one hand, Israel’s image in Western Europe and the Islamic world has deteriorated radically, and anti-Semitism is on the rise. On the other, Israel’s image in the United States is so solid that the Bush administration gives Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a blank check to build fences and settlements and destroy what may be the last opportunity to reach a two state solution that will preserve Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state.
No Israeli public diplomacy and information (hasbara) campaign can effectively counter the effects on world opinion of occupation, targeted killings, settlements, fences, and malnutrition among Palestinian children. While the Muslim world is in any case predisposed against us, even Western Europe is not particularly inclined to support us, given its hang-ups about colonialism, its growing Muslim population and its dependence on Arab oil. Only Israel’s image in the US seems to be an exception, due apparently to the American reaction to the Muslim radical attacks of 9/11 (in effect, a better capacity to identify with Israel’s dilemma), the large and influential Jewish and evangelical Christian communities for whom Israel seemingly can do no wrong, and the US perception of "shared values" with Israel.
The growing wave of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world is, in view of historical precedent–the Holocaust–in many ways a far more frightening phenomenon than Israel’s bad image per se. There are ugly anti-Semitic strains in Islam and in post-World War II Europe that have nothing at all to do with Israel and its behavior. Like the twin towers on 9/11, the synagogues in Turkey would have been attacked even had Israel been at peace with its neighbors.
But many of the recalcitrant anti-Semites, particularly on the fringes of Islam and the conflict, feel empowered right now to emerge from their intellectual and religious cocoons only because the Israeli-Palestinian war has painted Israel in such negative colors. They are too ashamed to show themselves when there is a dynamic peace process.
Right now the process may be dynamic, but it is leading us toward an even more brutal war, rather than peace. By dint of a combination of geography and demography the clock is ticking on the two state solution. The spread of the settlements renders it increasingly difficult to disengage into two states, while the Palestinian birthrate will soon generate a situation whereby a Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority. The consequent doubts cast upon the Zionist ideal of a Jewish and democratic state have further blurred the lines between anti-Semitism and legitimate anti-Israel opinions. Here and there a few dare to suggest that a rationale for Israel’s existence no longer exists.
Never mind that no other nation in the world is treated this way by its detractors–suggesting that it is the root of all evil (Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis), that it is a "race of perpetrators" (German parliamentarian Martin Hohmann and his military admirer, Brigadier General Reinhard Gunzel), that it controls the world and–even as Jews in Israel and in Istanbul are being murdered by suicidal Muslim fanatics–sends others to die for it (outgoing Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammed). No amount of hand wringing is going to alter the unique and precarious status of the Jewish people in the eyes of most of the world–something Israel’s very existence was supposed to have done.
Yet we can blunt this new anti-Jewish offensive; we can discredit the anti-Semites and force them back into their caves. This is for the most part not a task for information officers. Rather, it is mainly the obligation of our political leadership. We have the means and the capability to negotiate a two state solution with the Palestinians. And if, as I suspect, there is no serious negotiating partner on the other side with the leadership capability to make hard decisions and enforce them, then we have the means and the capability to disengage unilaterally, including dismantling of the problematic settlements. We have to do these things not because the Palestinians necessarily have earned our good will or won the information war, or because we are intimidated by the anti-Semites–but because this is the only way for a democratic and Jewish Israel to survive. And that makes for good hasbara.
More and more Israelis, including very prominent political and security figures, are sounding the alarm regarding Israel’s future. It is absolutely vital that diaspora Jewish leaders–many of whom are currently gathered in Jerusalem–and American political leaders join and encourage them, rather than sit back and pay lip service to Israel’s current leadership, right or wrong, or keep silent because the war on terrorism ostensibly dictates a united front. The potential consequences of the South Africanization of this conflict–for the Jewish people and for American interests in the region–are too awful to warrant maintaining a hands-off policy any further.
We have to win the internal information war among Israelis and their supporters before we can alter Israel’s image abroad.