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.
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.