Improving Israel’s Image: Myths, Truths, and Obstacles

On a recent trip to Israel, one question in particular came up over and over again: how can Israel improve its image to the rest of the world? Israeli diplomats, politicians, and academics all complained that Israel is unfairly singled out as a ‘perpetrator’ in the region, especially at a time when there are far worse atrocities being committed by other countries in the Middle East. While this is certainly true, the turmoil in the rest of the Middle East can not give Israel the excuse to ignore its own conflict, especially as it promises to serve as a major irritant in the relationship between Israel and the newly emerging Arab populist regimes. Hence, the biggest service that Israel could do to its own image would be to re-engage in the peace process with the Palestinians regardless of what happens in the rest of the Middle East.

The fact that even top level diplomats are publicly resisting such efforts adds to Israel’s troubled image. In an address to the Security Council on April 23 that seems to have gone largely unnoticed, Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, called on the Security Council to separate myths from truth in the discussion of the Middle East, saying that in the dangerous uncertainty of a turbulent Middle East, the Security Council has never had a greater responsibility to separate myth from truth, and fact from fiction.

While the ambassador’s myths may indeed be correct the real lesson from his talk is not about what he said, but why he needed to say it at all.  Why does the Israeli leadership feel a need to explain to the International community that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be prioritized; that the situation in Gaza is not as bad as it seems; that settlements should continue (as if they strengthen the peace process); and that Israel does not need to make an efforts toward peace until all Arabs and Palestinians have recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state? While there are numerous myths floating around on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and certainly also in the Western world and within the Security Council), those myths should not cloud what the real obstacles for peace are and the facts that cannot be ignored regardless of who is right or wrong. Ironically, because Israeli leaders are actively trying to convince the world that their own conflict is not important, they may instead be showing the world that they have no interest in working it out. There are three myths in particular, said Prosor, that need to be refuted.

The first is the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central conflict in the Middle East. Rather, he suggested, the international community should focus their energy on the Arab world, where Assad’s troops are “flattening entire communities,” or on Iran, which is the single greatest threat to the Middle East and potentially the world. While most of the world shares Israel’s concern about Iran and appreciate the need to take action, ignoring the home front and the Palestinian question would not be particularly helpful in improving the chances that Iran would change its course. Indeed, even if it may be partly empty rhetoric, the Palestinian issue is often quoted by Iran’s leaders as one of the bones of contention and a causus belli against Israel. An agreement between Israel and the Palestinians where Hamas was significantly pacified could therefore help weaken the Iranian influence. While it is heartening that Prosor feels so strongly about the Syrian people and the crimes of Asad, it is difficult to understand why he feels that it needs to be prioritized over restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, unless he really wants to see the international community ignore those efforts altogether. Yes, the international community should wrack their brains over how to save the Syrian population from their brutal dictator while avoiding civilian casualties, but why not also try to bring an end to one of the most protracted conflicts in history that has left two populations in limbo for the past 64 years?

The second myth that the Ambassador wants to refute is that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In fact, I am convinced that he is right. I am sure that Israel (one of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world and with genuine humanitarian concerns) would not allow an entire population in Gaza to starve under their watch. Indeed, the Ambassador proves, numbers show that there has been a real growth in Gaza’s GDP of 25% in 2011. Thus, while we have Israel to thank for the fact that people are not directly starving, such number still miss the point. Gaza is, and will remain, an insurmountable Israeli problem if it is not resolved within the larger Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As home to more than 1.7 million Palestinian refugees who mostly hail from cities inside Israel, Gaza has become a fenced in prison with a population density ranking among the highest in the world. Most of Gaza’s refugees live without basic amenities and almost 40% live below the poverty level, and they do so because of a war between Israel and the neighboring Arab states before most of them were born. The villages and homes that their parents knew are now inside Israel, mostly erased and replaced by every-day Israeli life. When life becomes difficult and when they face the grim realization that they are likely to be stuck in this hell for the rest of their lives, it is quite natural that they get violent. Is it Israel’s fault? Perhaps not. Is it Israel’s problem? You tell me.

The third problem has to do with the settlements – and the “myth” that settlements are the primary obstacle to peace. Instead, Prosor says, the true barrier is the Palestinian refugees’ claim of a right to return, and their refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people. While those two last points are truly thorny issues for the Israelis and the peace process, making them equal to the settlements is a false comparison. It is quite obvious that Palestinians are having a difficult time negotiating over a territory that—in their words—is being gobbled up like a Swiss cheese while the process over the territory should still be ongoing. However, refugees are not returning or infiltrating into Israel as we speak. They are still outside, and will remain outside, unless Israel decides to allow a small symbolic number to return as a good-will gesture to the Palestinians. Those conditions have been recognized as acceptable by Palestinian negotiators in the past, although if you ask the refugees themselves, they are obviously not going to pretend to be happy about it. Regarding the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state for the Jewish people one may truly ask whether this demand can be taken seriously as long as settlement expansion make it impossible for Palestinians to imagine a future self-governed entity with a viable and contiguous territory. After 64 years of distrust, no Palestinian leader is going to believe that recognizingIsrael’s right to exist as a nation-state for the Jewish people is going to lead Israel to evacuate the settlements out of the goodness of their hearts.

Those are the facts Mr. Ambassador, and unless something is done by your government soon they will continue to serve as convenient obstacles for re-engaging in the peace process, with Israel’s image suffering as a result.

About the Author
Tova Norlen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, Switzerland, working on issues relating to international security, Middle East/Israel, conflict management and US foreign policy. She has a PhD in international relations and conflict management from the Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies in Washington DC, and has worked for several years teaching International relations and related subjects in Southern California.