The latest annual Country Ratings Poll of the BBC World Service makes for grim reading. That Israel finds itself in such dubious company as Iran,Pakistan and North Korea in this global popularity survey is shocking but unsurprising based on the results of previous years.
That unfavorable opinions of Israel have worsened since the 2011 survey should, however, be a cause for concern. The past year has thankfully not witnessed any events of the magnitude of the Mavi Marmara or Operation Cast Lead where Israel was the recipient of a torrent of negative coverage.
Yet, the proportion with negative views of Israel among those surveyed by the BBC poll increased by three points to the damning figure of 50%.
Should we care? Absolutely. Canada, under the premiership of Stephen Harper, is considered to be Israel’s best friend in the world at this present time, even more so than the US. Yet 59% of Canadians surveyed in the BBC poll harbor negative opinions of Israel. So, evidently, it’s not the Canadian government that is affecting the Canadian public’s perceptions toward Israel.
Likewise, countries such as the UK and Germany that, while sometimes critical of Israeli policies, are still considered to be broadly supportive, show negative polling of 68% and 69%, respectively.
If it’s not governments that are influencing public opinion on Israel, then the most obvious probability is that of negative or biased coverage of Israel in the media.
Israel’s enemies, including even terrorist organizations, recognized long ago that the modern battlefield is not only dependent on guns, tanks or aircraft but also on cameras and the written word.
Twenty-seven percent of those with negative views of Israel answered that “how Israel treats its own people” was the most important factor for them. Israel is certainly not a police state which terrorizes its citizens. So how could the reality of Israel as a democratic society become so distorted?
The drip feed of stories of conflict and reports of Israel’s numerous imperfections is impossible to ignore, while an incident such as that of IDF Lt. Col. Eisner striking a pro-Palestinian activist with his M16 only serves to reinforce this narrow perception of Israel.
Of course, in any democracy, it is the duty of the elected government to represent the will of the people. What will happen, then, if public opinion on Israel continues to be out of kilter with the opinions and policies of the political echelon? It doesn’t bear thinking about. If governments were genuinely representative of their publics, then Israel would be in severe trouble.
At what point will Israel become a political hot potato that no politician would dare express support for at the risk of alienating the voters?
In such a climate, the delegitimization campaign against Israel can grow and spread, giving rise to more attempts at BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), not to mention a corresponding rise in anti-Semitic sentiment directed against Jewish populations in those countries.
That’s why it is imperative that Israel and her supporters take the results of this BBC survey seriously, starting with the positives. The country that Israel most depends on for diplomatic cover and military support is the United States, where views on Israel have actually improved.
And what of the remaining global 50% who did not answer in the negative concerning Israel? While only 21% held positive views, it means that there are still some 29% of neutrals or undecideds who can potentially be converted either way. It would also be foolish to disregard making inroads into the negatives.
We may not be able to convert all of these people into card-carrying Zionists, and it may be unrealistic to expect to turn these negative trends around in a short period of time, particularly given the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the wider view of Israel as another cog in a very unstable Middle East.
There is, however, plenty that can and should be done, starting with holding the media to account for often biased and one-sided reporting from Israel.
Ensuring that Israel is represented fairly in the media just might be enough to open the eyes of the public to the possibility that there is another side to the story coming out of the Middle East – a story that doesn’t need to endow Israel with the status of a pariah in the company of Iran, Pakistan or North Korea.
The Israeli state and the IDF are steadily improving. Where a flotilla or flytilla would have previously ended in a PR catastrophe, now they barely register with the media. Where Nakba Day protests would have ended in violence and global accusations of Israeli brutality, we now see nothing more than a storm in a teacup.
So if we are capable of at least putting something of a lid on things, please don’t tell me that the game is lost. That 21% of people who are positively disposed toward Israelis a virtual army of advocates. This may be a David vs. Goliath situation but we know how that turned out.
All it takes is the click of a mouse button, the forwarding of an interesting article, or the writing of an email to the letters page of the local newspaper.
Let’s turn off that drip, drip of negative headlines and articles and start slowly drying out the swamp of anti-Israel bias.