Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week on the occasion of Israeli Independence Day, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren penned a powerful op-ed on the erosion of Israel's image.
His conclusion: Israel's image has deteriorated in large part because of a "systematic delegitimization of the Jewish state."
"Having failed to destroy Israel by conventional arms and terrorism," he writes, "Israel's enemies alit on a subtler and more sinister tactic that hampers Israel's ability to defend itself, even to justify its existence."
First, some full disclosure. I like and respect Michael Oren. He's a remarkably talented historian, astute analyst, and able diplomat.
I also have no doubt that there are efforts to delegitimize Israel, that anti-Semitism pervades some of the anti-Israel rhetoric, that Israel is one of the few countries in the world that's judged by impossibly high standards, and that the perception and reality of its power causes many to ignore the realities of its vulnerability.
But I just don't buy the argument that Israel's image has eroded principally because of a dedicated campaign to delegitimize it.
Three other factors drive Israel's very bad PR: the realities of nation-building, the image of the asymmetry of power, and Israel's own actions, which, like those of so many other countries, value short-term tactics over long-term strategy.
City on a Hill?
If Israel was created to be a paragon of virtue and a "light unto the nations" -- the proverbial city on the hill -- it picked the wrong hill.
Whatever the Zionist ideologues who founded Israel may have intended, the creation of the state of Israel and the realities of nation-building quickly became a quest for normalcy in highly unusual and abnormal circumstances.
Unlike the United States, which had non-predatory neighbors to its north and south and fish to its east and west, Israelis perceived themselves to have had no security space and little margin for error, let alone the quiet miracle of a normal life. Born in war, Israel has remained in an active conflict zone ever since. That it has succeeded in creating as much normalcy as it did is a remarkable testament to its leaders and the capacities, strength, and will of its people.
But along with that normalcy came the normal aging process of a small state built on socialist and Zionist values turning into a modern industrialized nation focused on material advancement and modern comforts. Israel's idealized image of itself -- the one idealized by its founders and much of the American Jewish community -- could only change for the worse.
For Israel, part of being normal has also meant acting like a normal state, with all of the contradictions, political expediency, hypocrisies, and self-justifying policies that such normalcy entails in a world that is still ruled by power and self-interest. Israel's loyal ally, the United States, operates in that world too.