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Israel's Image Revisited

What's driving Israel's very bad PR? 

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.

Why would anyone believe that Israeli behavior would be any different? Are the Israelis more ethical, democratic, and moral than we are? Israel's image has eroded because it lives in the real world as a flawed and imperfect nation. And frankly, though it's only 60-plus years old, its abuses and flaws have yet to rival any of the European colonial powers, let alone the Russians or the Chinese.

Big and Small

The erosion of Israel's image is also inextricably linked to its emergence as a regional power with a vibrant economy, a dynamic high-tech sector, and a powerful military. The images in Leon Uris's classic book Exodus and the Hollywood movie version with Paul Newman leading a ragtag Israeli militia against a sea of hostile Arabs have now been reversed. David has become Goliath.

In the eyes of the world, Israel has shed its image of a small state struggling against impossible odds. Israel now has "security needs" and "requirements" rather than existential fears; its power obligates it to be more magnanimous and forthcoming on peace issues; its strength should produce restraint, not excess.

Indeed much of the erosion of Israel's image is driven by the realities and perceptions of an asymmetry of power that now pits the nation with a per capita GDP of $31,000, 100 companies on the NYSE, and nukes in triple digits against a weak Palestinian quasi-state and an Arab world that's dysfunctional and imploding.

There's much truth in this image of Israeli might, and anyone who denies that capacity trivializes what the Israelis have accomplished and does them a grave disservice by portraying them as victims.

But there's also truth in Israel's vulnerabilities, too. But the asymmetry of power doesn't work in Israel's favor here, either. Remember the summer of 2006, when 5,000 Hezbollah fighters equipped with rudimentary rockets shut down the northern half of the region's strongest military power for 33 days? The day before the war ended, Hezbollah fired more rockets than on any previous day. Nuclear weapons and overwhelming force don't add up to much if they can't be used and don't deter.

Israeli Actions

Finally, Israel's eroding image flows from its own actions and behavior. These seem to fall into three categories.

The first are those actions that are legitimate expressions of Israel's real security needs, but for which Israel is roundly and unfairly criticized (the 1981 attack on the Iraqi reactor; the 2007 preemptive strike on the fledging Syrian one).

Second are those policies that not only make little sense morally or strategically but are deemed to be ideological and undercut other Israeli goals, such as peace with the neighbors (see: settlements).

Third are those that are dumb, arbitrary, or disproportionate in terms of loss of life (see: Ehud Olmert's massive invasion of Lebanon in 2006, as well as many of Israel's occupation policies that humiliate Palestinians, including collective punishment, housing demolitions, and so on). And many of these derive from the reality that small powers, particularly those with 32 different governments in 60-plus years, don't have long-range policies and strategies. Instead, they maneuver, react, and preempt to buy time and space.

The notion that Israel's unfavorable image is a result of some evil cabal that plots daily against it infantilizes the Israelis and takes them out of history as real-world actors who sometimes do well in pursuit of their interests and at other times screw up badly. Israel is a remarkable state that has sought to preserve its moral and ethical soul in a cruel and unforgiving world. But it is still only a nation of mortals trying to survive in that world.

Israeli founding father David Ben Gurion reflected the mood and mindset perfectly: It doesn't matter what the goyim say; what matters is what the Jews do. For better and almost certainly worse, Israel will be judged accordingly.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

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