Almost everybody thinks badly of Israel. That’s what a poll published by the BBC World Service in 2014 shows. More precisely, Israel ranks as the fourth most negatively viewed nation, right after North Korea, Pakistan and Iran. What explains the differences between European and American views on Israel, and how does such an overall negative international reputation impact on the country’s foreign and domestic policies?
Beyond the Muslim world, which unsurprisingly holds Israel in very poor regard (with the exception of the more moderate Turkey), European countries are the most critical. The situation in the UK, France and Germany has not changed much since 2013 with negative opinions respectively reaching 72, 67 and 64 percent. What explains such results?
Three main factors have to be taken into account. First, many European countries have a strong immigrant population coming from various Arab countries, who have been advocating for the Palestinians’ cause. But the sentiment in Europe is not so much in favor of the Palestinians (Europe has lately stood out for the emergence of right-wing parties expressing strong anti-Muslim and anti-Arabs opinions) as it is anti-Israel. This can be partly explained by the existence of many European secessionist movements (for instance in Catalonia and Scotland), which strive for independence and naturally leads them to identify with what they perceive to be the underdog in a similar fight.
Furthermore, Europe’s colonial past weighs heavily in the balance. Having greatly interfered in the Middle East and North Africa, Europeans not only undertook decolonization following World War II; they also started questioning the very notion of colonialism in the 1960s. In a form of atonement for their own sins, they now consider Israel as an illegitimate entity in the Middle East, forgetting sometimes that for Israelis (especially second and third generations) there is no place to go back to, no decolonization possible. To make it worse, Israel’s defense strategy having been to emphasize its military strength, many Europeans now consider it as the bully of the Middle East. Where Israelis see themselves as David facing a Goliath embodied by the surrounding threatening Arab countries, Europeans considers Palestine to be their victim.
Finally, there is no denying the existence of an anti-Semitic feeling in many European countries, although this form of anti-Semitism is not necessarily to be understood in direct correlation with its 1940s’ manifestation. Rather than hating Jews, many Europeans are opposed to the political and military choices (such as the colonies for instance) of the Israeli government (they might thus be better defined as “anti-Zionists”) sometimes failing to make the distinction between the two clear. Furthermore, many of these secular countries are suspicious of a nation that defines itself through its religion.
On the opposite side of the public opinion spectrum, U.S. support for Israel has not wavered. In fact, the BBC poll states that views of Israel have never been better since the ratings started in 2007. Similarly, a 2015 Gallup poll shows that 7 in 10 Americans are favorable to Israel – a result that has not changed since last year’s survey. Thus, and despite the media coverage of the tensions between the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama Administration, Israel’s alliance with the U.S is not threatened in the short term. More problematic, is that the divide between Republicans and Democrats on the topic could lead to an especially partisan exploitation of the Israel question in the upcoming American elections.
As to Israelis themselves, they maintain a positive view on the impact of their country abroad. Despite the latest tensions with Washington, the nation’s fear for its future (following the Arab spring which has unsettled the region’s balance and in the midst of the nuclear talks with Iran) keeps it relatively unified, as Netanyahu’s reelection in March 17, 2015 has indicated.
The problem for Israel is rather its steadily deteriorating international legitimacy, which could threaten the country in the long term. Israel forgets that its establishment in 1948 is principally due to the recognition by the United Nations, yet it now dismisses the UN as much as the EU. The government has started to realize that losing the public relations war could have unfortunate consequences; Netanyahu has expressed his concern in the face of boycott movements such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Events have been organized in the U.S to fight such initiatives and to discuss how to defend Israel against attacks on its public image. But propaganda will only confirm the critics in their positions, and it will certainly not change international opinions vis-à-vis Israel and its isolationist policies.
Ultimately, only a major shift towards more transparency, addressing accusations directly (rather than dismissively), and showing a willingness to change course and restart the peace-process will save Israel from losing the PR war. That is why Netanyahu’s reelection may represent an insurmountable setback for Israel at the worst possible time.
Image courtesy of Cyrl