[A version of this originally appeared here]
Israel is losing the global PR war, reveals a poll published by the BBC World Service in 2014. And the March 2015 reelection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a polarizing figure throughout the international community, likely will not serve to change this trend. Israel presently ranks as the fourth most negatively viewed nation, after North Korea, Pakistan and Iran. But notably, there is a sharp contrast between American and European perceptions of Israel. What explains the differences between European and American views, and how does such an overall negative international reputation impact on the country’s foreign and domestic policies?
Aside from Israel’s neighboring states in the Middle East, European countries are the most critical of the country. Overall perceptions in the United Kingdom, France and Germany have not changed much since 2013—72, 67 and 64 percent of the respondents in the respective countries have negative opinions on Israel. What explains such results?
Three main factors have to be taken into account. Although at first glance it could look like Arab immigrants advocating for Palestine have had some impact on public opinion in Europe, it is anti-Israel more than pro-Palestinian sentiment. Europe has lately stood out for the emergence of right-wing parties expressing strong anti-Muslim sentiments. This can be partly explained by the existence of many European secessionist movements (for instance in the Basque Country 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 this situation. 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 a colonial force, 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, many Europeans see Israel and its defense strategy of emphasizing military strength as the bully of the Middle East. In contrast, Israelis see themselves as David facing a Goliath of threatening Arab countries, and Europeans consider Palestine to be Israel’s victim.
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 historical manifestation. Rather than hating Jews, many Europeans are opposed to the political and military choices—such as the settlements—of the Israeli government. They might thus be better defined as anti-Zionists; sometimes failing to make clear the distinction between the two concepts.
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 United States is not threatened in the short term. The divide between Republicans and Democrats on the topic could lead to an especially partisan exploitation of the Israel question in the upcoming 2016 elections.
As for Israelis themselves, they maintain a positive view on the impact of their country abroad, according to the BBC poll. Despite the latest tensions with Washington, the nation’s fear for its future keeps the country relatively unified. This is especially true following the Arab Spring, which unsettled the region’s balance, and most recently the nuclear talks with Iran. Netanyahu’s reelection on March 17, 2015 is an indicator of this.
The problem for Israel is rather its deteriorating international legitimacy, which could threaten the country in the long term. Israel forgets that its establishment in 1948 is principally due to recognition by the United Nations, yet it now dismisses the UN as much as the European Union. 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—a campaign that demands Israel to comply with international law and recognize Palestinian rights. 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.
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.